Despite the success the Penguins had with young, homegrown players in last season’s playoffs, they still don’t tend to do very well in those NHL prospect rankings. They were dead last in some polls before last season and moved up only a few slots this season after winning a Stanley Cup.
Associate general manager Jason Botterill is not entirely OK with that.
Don’t get me wrong. He’s not losing sleep over where a website ranks his prospects. But he has challenged his scouts to use the resources available to them to make sure the prospect pool remains strong, even if the team picks near the end of every round at the NHL draft every year.
Part of that is finding undrafted college free agents. Conor Sheary is the crown jewel in that category, of course, but the team added Thomas Di Pauli from Notre Dame and Ethan Prow from St. Cloud State last season as well.
The latest addition to the pool is Northeastern’s Zach Aston-Reese, who signed today. He’s a rung above the Di Paulis and Prows of the world, perhaps the most sought-after undrafted free agent of the year, the NCAA leader with 31 goals and 63 points in 38 games.
From every scouting report I’ve read, it’s not hard to get a feel for Aston-Reese’s game. He’s a 6-foot, 204-pond left-handed shooter who earns his offense through diligent two-way play, a knack for going where goals are scored and a willingness to get his nose dirty.
The only question, really, is how his speed and strength will stack up in the pros. If they translate to the NHL level, he could be an impact player. If they don’t, he projects as a fourth-line type of guy.
Had a chance to talk to Aston-Reese on the phone for a few minutes this evening. Here’s what he had to say.
Q:At least half the NHL was after you during the free agency process. What was that like?
A: I just tried to go about the process the right way. Everybody I’ve spoken to has been really great. I’ve got to meet a lot of great people. It wasn’t too hard. Just take it one day at a time and focus on my season at Northeastern.
Q: Sometime around the middle of last season, you went from putting up good numbers to putting up great numbers. The team started winning too. What was the difference?
A: I think everybody started to buy into what their roles were. We had one of the best college hockey players in Kevin Roy and he missed a good portion of the season. When he came back, he was on the third line and he accepted that role and he was really good about it. I think that resonated with the rest of the team. Guys were excited to be at the rink every day. It was just a snowball effect.
Q: How about you personally?
A: I just had two really good linemates. I was playing with John and Nolan Stevens. They’re really good to play with. You come back to the bench, and if you had a bad shift, we’re all sitting next to each other and talking about it. Away from the rink, I live with John Stevens and we have a really good relationship. We were just excited to play every night.
Q: It sounds like you treat the offensive part of the game like you do every other part of the game, meaning you look at it as something that requires work to improve. Is that true?
A: That’s something I’ve been working on since back in juniors. You always hear about how important it is to have a really good shot at the next level. That was one of the things I was working on, and just being ready around the net and being ready to bear down and find quiet areas around the net. For me, that was something that took work. This year, it finally paid off.
Q: You’re going to Wilkes-Barre in a matter of days. What part of your game are you certain will translate well to the pro game and what part of your game aren’t you sure about?
A: Whenever you make the jump to the next level, you’re always thinking about what the pace is going to be like. One of the things I might need work on is getting the pace and the timing down at the next level. But with that, everybody there is a good player. All the passes are crisp and everybody’s in the right position for the most part. That helps you out. One thing I guess I’ll find out is how strong I am compared to the rest of the pros. It’s something I’m excited to find out.
Q: How did the recruitment process with the Penguins go?
A: After games and things like that, there were a few teams waiting around. Mark Recchi was around in the rinks and Bill Guerin. They’re really good guys. They said good things. I think what they’ve done in Wilkes-Barre backs it up.
Q: Do you try to figure out where you fit in the depth chart before you sign or is that hard to do?
A: Yeah, you look at depth charts and things like that. At the end of the day, when I narrowed it down, in my heart, Pittsburgh’s the place I felt like I wanted to go.