Penguins director of player development Mark Recchi watched Zach Aston-Reese a lot during his senior year at Northeastern in 2016-17, where he put together a terrific season.
The numbers certainly stand out - Aston-Reese led the NCAA with 31 goals and tied for first with 63 points in 38 games - but what stood out the most to Pens management was just how good of a fit he would be in the Pens organization.
So Recchi helped convince Aston-Reese, a highly coveted undrafted free agent, to sign with Pittsburgh back in March. He knows what Aston-Reese is all about, and Recchi said he's looking forward to everyone else getting a chance to see the 22-year-old forward up close this week at Pens development camp.
"I'm excited for you guys to see Zach Aston-Reese," Recchi said Wednesday. "It's good for him to come here and be around."
Aston-Reese played 10 regular-season games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League before suffering an injury that forced him to miss the entire playoffs.
"It was fun," Aston-Reese said of his experience. "The whole team down there was great and there were two really good leaders, Kevin Porter and Tom Kostopoulos. I was fortunate enough to play with them and they gave me a lot of good advice."
Aston-Reese's scoring touch translated in those 10 games, as he recorded three goals and eight points. His biggest takeaway was that the closer you get to the NHL, the harder it gets and the more work you have to put in.
"The biggest thing I noticed is that guys were a lot stronger," he said. "Guys are older and they've been doing this for years and the puck transition's a lot quicker at that level. It's not that it's much quicker, but everyone's better and everyone's making the right plays."
Moving forward, Aston-Reese wants to work on adding that quickness into his game.
"I think the biggest thing is just getting that quickness right off the block, those first three steps," he said. "You see guys get the puck on the wall in the Dzone and just being able to get up ice and keep up the pace, especially with the Penguins organization. That's one thing they key on, is playing with pace."
During his time at Northeastern, Aston-Reese worked on becoming a north-south player like Chris Kunitz.
"He was a college free agent, too, and kind of a goal scorer his last couple years in college," Aston-Reese said. "Just made a career for himself playing with good guys and being able to put the puck in the back of the net."
Kunitz is also known for being willing to go to the dirty areas, something Aston-Reese excels at. Guerin called Aston-Reese an 'honest, hard-playing player' who does his best in the ugly areas.
"That's kind of been what I've been developing the last couple of years at Northeastern, and I think that kind of showed with my production throughout my four years there," Aston-Reese said of his net-front presence.
Kunitz isn't the only Pens player on Aston-Reese's radar. He's also watched the progression of young former college players like Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Scott Wilson, saying their development over such a short period of time after turning pro is 'eye-opening.' But while he's impressed with how impactful they've been at the NHL level, Aston-Reese more focused on his own development and what he needs to do to get here.
"I haven't really heard too much yet as far as next year," Aston-Reese said. "I think I set my own goals, and that's for me to come in and just prove that I belong up here."