- Over the last season and a half, Northeastern's Zach Aston-Reese has been on an offensive tear, adding one more element in an already attractive toolkit for the undrafted senior.
Zach Aston-Reese has made it pretty easy to measure his performance this season. The Northeastern senior leads the NCAA in goals (29), is tied for tops in points (59) and shorthanded goals (4); he's also among the leaders in Division I with 13 power play goals (third), 143 shots (fourth) and 68 penalty minutes (15th). He’s poised to become just the 16th player to top the 30-goal mark in the last decade, while his current pace of 1.74 points per game this season is fifth-best in that same span.
He became the first Husky to record 25 goals and 25 assists in a season since 1986 and the first NU player in the last 30 years to net three hat tricks in the same season. He's climbed to 14th on the school's career scoring list with 144 points, and is the 17th Northeastern player to net 40 points in consecutive seasons.
There are plenty of numbers to point to for the Hobey Baker Award candidate and Walter Brown Award semifinalist, but the one that everyone raves about is 200, as in the length in feet of a regulation hockey rink. “He's a complete player, a 200-foot complete player,” his coach Jim Madigan says.
It’s easy to be wowed by Aston-Reese’s offensive totals over the past season-and-a-half, a prolific stat line that accounts for 85 points in 55 games, though when the forward is asked to describe his game, his high-scoring ways are noticeably absent.
“I think my game is kinda tough to play against,” the undrafted forward says. “I play both sides of the puck pretty well, I like to play physical. I like to play down low and in the dirty area of the ice and get puck to the net. I try to get under some guys' skins. It's all part of my game. That's what I pride myself on.”
The added offensive element has brought him into focus, and those watching bring up that number again.
"He's a smart 200-foot kind of a guy," says Kirk Luedeke, a scout with Red Line Report. "He doesn't have a ton of size, but he plays bigger. He's heavy on pucks, he's responsible, he's diligent, he works hard along the walls and he goes to the dirty areas and he's got some jam. The offense has really come up in the last couple of seasons, especially this season, that's what's getting a lot of people's attentions, but the foundation is there."
It was those attributes that brought him to the college game. He didn’t put up gaudy numbers in his time in the USHL—50 points in 138 games over three seasons with the Lincoln Stars—he honed the honed his game and carved out a role. “My junior career, I wasn't really a point guy,” Aston-Reese says. “That's when I learned how important it is to be responsible in all three zones just get into the lineup. Kinda learned that early on in my career, which is good for me.”
His full-ice play caught the eye of Jerry Keefe, an assistant coach at Brown who established a relationship with Aston-Reese. When Keefe joined Madigan’s Huskies staff, Aston-Reese followed.
The 6-foot, 204-pound forward was supposed to spend an extra season developing with the Stars at the behest of the Northeastern staff, but when Ludwig Karlsson unexpectedly signed with the Ottawa Senators after his sophomore season in 2012–13, it opened up a roster spot for Aston-Reese, and he was well aware of his role in the early going.
“When I came in, I was on the fourth line and I was more of an energy guy,” he says. “I didn't get as much power play time.”
He finished his freshman season with a modest eight goals and 19 points in 35 games with the Huskies, and he improved those totals to 13 and 23 in 31 games as a sophomore. In his third season, he potted a modest 17 points in the Northeastern’s first 20 games—and that’s when the avalanche began: Over the final 21 games of 2015–16, Aston-Reese picked up 26 points, climbing the national scoring race, leading the Huskies to their first Hockey East postseason title since 1988 and an NCAA tournament berth.
“I don't know whether it was I started eating my Wheaties or…” he says with a laugh. “I think I just got a lot of confidence from last year and it carried over to this year.”
His coach sees things a bit differently, with a little less humility and a lot of sweat-equity.
“Each year he's worked on parts of his game to get better, and a lot of it's been on the offensive side of it,” says Madigan, “with his shot and stick skills, but he works at it, and that's why he's gotten better. I mean he works at shooting after practice, participating in the goaltender sessions twice a week, so when you do that over the course of four years, good things are going to happen because you've worked on your game.”
The work has paid off, as the offensive explosion has added another element to his game, and he's gained some notoriety along the way.
“I think he would have been in demand even if he had 15 goals this season,” says Luedeke. “Certainly he was on NHL radars before, but that production has got people re-thinking what's he gonna be. He always had the hockey sense, he just didn’t necessarily have the production. I think teams are looking back and kicking themselves that they didn't draft him because he's one of those players that's continued to develop ever since he left the USHL and went to college.”
One of the biggest ways he's developed, according to his coach, is in his leadership skills. As a second-year captain, he prefers to set an example, rather than be vocal. He's had a chance to make an impression up and down the roster this season, as his linemates from last season, brothers John and Nolan Stevens, have been in and out of the lineup with injuries.
“Sometimes we've had him out there with guys who are still good players but haven't seen as much ice time or key situations as they've had other than playing with him,” Madigan says. “[Zach] has taken on the role of ‘Ok, whoever I’m playing with, I'm just going to make them better,’ and you can look at his numbers and they're just as good without the Stevenses as with the Stevenses because his mentality and focus out there.”
With a healthy roster and enviable scoring depth—junior Dylan Sikura (20 goals, 53 points) and sophomore Adam Gaudette (25 goals, 51 points) are also in the top-10 nationally in goals and points—Northeastern heads into the Hockey East postseason as an eight-seed facing off against No. 9 Connecticut in a best-of-three series beginning on Friday and needing a second straight playoff title to make the NCAAs again. Scouts and front office types alike will be monitoring the Huskies' progress, ready and waiting for a player that can make an immediate impact.
"Let's say youre an NHL team and you sign him and he makes your team right away," Luedeke says. "Even if he's not playing on a scoring line right and producing points for you, he's probably doing some really good things on your bottom six or bottom line, and he's the kind of guy that can work his way up because he's smart and he's industrious. "
Aston-Reese know he'll be in high demand when he hangs up his Husky jersey for the final time, but he's not ready for that just yet.
"There's some noise there, but I do my best to block it out," he says. "I just want to have a repeat of last year. I know all the guys that were part of the team last year have a little bit of a bitter taste from how we finished in the tournament. We want to get back to that spot."
Northeastern has its work cut out of it, but who better to lead the way than a guy known for playing all 200 feet.