The collegiate careers of a few of the top NHL free agents in NCAA hockey could come to an end this weekend.
While Union senior center Mike Vecchione's Dutchmen appear to be in pretty good shape to make the NCAA Tournament, the season could be over for Northeastern senior right wing Zach Aston-Reese and UNH senior right wing Tyler Kelleher if their teams lose their respective quarterfinal series in the Hockey East Playoffs.
The three stars occupy the top three positions in the NCAA Division I scoring race with 62, 62 and 58 points. However, the similarities stop there for the most part. All three bring various skill sets, and strengths and weaknesses to the table.
All three will receive a NHL contract one their season is over, but there is a top two in this race. Aston-Reese and Vecchione are heads and shoulders above Kelleher in terms of pro upside. When it comes down to Aston-Reese or Vecchione, it really has to do with organizational preference.
Vecchione plays with better pace, but Aston-Reese has a heavier game. Two interesting stats to look at past the obvious point totals. In games against teams currently in the top 20 of the Pairwise Rankings, Aston-Reese has eight goals and 14 assists in 15 games played. Vecchione has played just eight games against teams in the top 20 of the Pairwise, totaling five goals and six assists. Both Aston-Reese (13-16) and Vecchione (14-15) have 29 points while playing at five-on-five.
Zach Aston-Reese, Sr., RW, Northeastern, 6-0/204, Staten Island, NY
36 GP 20-32--62
Aston-Reese's game has evolved during his four years at Northeastern. He's always been a fairly good defensive forward, but he's become a big-time offensive threat at the collegiate level these past two seasons.
He went from 19 points as a freshman to 23 as a sophomore. After a breakout 43 point campaign as a junior, he has 62 points this season. What makes this season so special for Aston-Reese is his two regular linemates, Nolan and John Stevens, were injured for most of the season. Sure, 13 of his 30 goals have come on the power play where he was playing with the likes of Adam Gaudette and Dylan Sikura, even when the Stevens brothers were out of the lineup.
He plays a heavy game and he is consistently strong on pucks. He has four shorthanded goals this season. One of them, earlier in the season, he did great work along the wall to win a battle, killing time if nothing else. But, then he came away with the puck and scored.
The question some NHL teams will have is how heavy is game can be at the pro level when he's having to go up and down the sheet at the pace of pro hockey for 12-14 minutes a game.
At the next level, he's going to have to be a bottom six player, and all indications point to him being able to do just that. A lot of his goals have come off tip-ins, rebounds or looks in the slot where he's found a seam in the defense and received a good pass. Very few of his plays are of the highlight reel variety.
While he doesn't have the hands or elite speed to be a top six player, he can be a bottom six forward that does a good job in his own zone taking away time and space, and winning puck battles along the wall. He can cycle well down low, be a puck hound in all three zones, and push possession while he's out there. He can kill penalties and chip in offensively from time to time.
Strengths: Heavy game, plays and competes in all three zones, goes to dirty areas for tip-in and 'garbage' goals
Weaknesses: Lacks elite speed and offensive skill set to play top six in NHL
Mike Vecchione, Sr., C, Union, 5-10/195, Saugus, Mass.
34 GP 26-32--58
Vecchione was part of a national championship team his freshman season and has been an integral part of the Dutchmen's success over the past four seasons. Even as a rookie, he was the team's top center down the stretch as the school picked up its first NCAA Championship. He did have a little bit of dip during his junior campaign, but has put up 50 or more points twice. He was the only of the three players to put up more than 30 points as a freshman.
Vecchione, who originally committed to play for UNH out of Malden Catholic, has been one of the better defensive forwards and face-off men in ECAC Hockey for the last four years. He plays a complete game and is responsible in his own end. Is his game heavy enough to translate to the next level? That's the question some teams have.
He's the best skater of the three. He plays with pace and is strong on his feet. He has the most explosive stride of any of the three players. He's shifty and has produced several highlight reel goals over the course of the season. However, can he do that at the NHL level? It's doubtful, so teams might look at that with less regard than the fact that Aston-Reese can score in the dirty areas and play a heavier game. It needs to be pointed out that Vecchione can compete and stand his own on the wall and in fighting for pucks, but just doesn't have what Aston-Reese has in that regard.
Strengths: Face-offs, two-way center, best skater of the three, above average offensive skill set, proven commodity over four years
Weaknesses: Competes and is responsible in all three zones, but is he as heavy on pucks as Aston-Reese?
(Photo Credit: Matt Dewkett)
Tyler Kelleher, Sr., RW, New Hampshire, 5-6/154, Longmeadow, Mass.
37 GP 23-39--62
After coming to Durham as a true freshman out of the USA Hockey NTDP, he's blossomed into an elite offensive player at the collegiate level. He had just 16 points as a rookie, but has followed that up with 42, 46 and 62.
As Dick Umile has pointed out several times over the last month, he's a player who makes his linemates better. He singlehandedly helped Andrew Poturalski have such a good season last year the sophomore signed with the Carolina Hurricanes. This season, he's elevated the production levels of linemates Michael McNicholas and Jason Salvaggio.
When focusing on Kelleher, it doesn't take long to realize what his game is all about. He has a quick stick and is relatively shifty, but he doesn't have elite NHL speed. He's undersized as well. He makes up for that with elite hockey sense. He knows where to be in the offensive zone at all times. He's always one step ahead of the defensemen at this level. He finds seams and he knows where he's going with the puck before he gets it on his stick.
His size is less the reason he's behind Vecchione and Aston-Reese than his play in his own zone. He's struggled for whatever reasons to engage and be a purposeful player when defending.
Kelleher will sign a two-way NHL entry level contract following the conclusion of play for the Wildcats, but he won't receive the terms that Vecchione or Aston-Reese earn.
Strengths: Elite hockey sense, quick stick, makes linemates better
Weaknesses: Lack of size, NHL speed, defensive zone responsibility
(Photo Credit: Matt Dewkett)