By Nate Tenopir, Editor-in-Chief
When Andrej Sustr left the Youngstown Phantoms of the USHL for a college career at UNO, it didn’t take long for scouts across the league to discover they might have missed out on one of the best young prospects in the game. Three years later the scouts did not make the same mistake again.
Just days after the Mavs’ season ended in Mankato, the native of Plzen, Czech Republic agreed to the terms of a two-year entry level contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Sustr had spent the previous summer at development camps with the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers and the Lightning.
But it was ultimately the Lightning who earned his services because of how they’ve grown recent talent in the NHL and AHL alike.
“I see what the team is doing with their younger players,” Sustr said. “They put their best players in their lineup. “
In three seasons at UNO, Sustr played in 111 games racking up 15 goals and 26 assists for 51 points. From game one of his Maverick career, Sustr was a starter who often drew the challenge of shutting down the opponent’s top line.
More often than not, he excelled in that role, finishing with a career plus/minus number of +24. But Sustr also showed ability in the offensive zone. His 25 points in 39 games this season ranks him in the top 20 in the NCAA for scoring among defenseman.
Corey Pronman of hockeyprospectus.com rates Sustr as a second or third defenseman in the top six of an NHL roster. Pronman’s description of Sustr says he has the offensive instincts to make unusual offensive plays for a player his size.
The decision to leave school early confronted Sustr last season. For some UNO home games there were scouts in attendance upwards of 10 plus.
But as last season ended Sustr was pretty firm on coming back to Omaha. Once that decision was made the suspicion was UNO wouldn’t be able to keep him around for another season after 2013.
“I think making that next step was a good thing for me this year,” Sustr said. “I think I can get better next year playing in the pro ranks than I could in college. I think getting familiar with professional hockey…I think that’s a better decision for me.”
Sustr ends his Maverick career tied for fourth in career plus/minus. His +24 is even with Bill Thomas and Joe Grimaldi, both from the 2004 and 2005 seasons.
Sustr becomes the third Mav to leave UNO early and seek a professional hockey career within the last calendar year.
Terry Broadhurst left for an opportunity with the Chicago Blackhawks nine days after the 2012 season ended, and Jayson Megna joined the Pittsburgh Penguins organization last August.
“I was blessed to be a part of UNO,” Sustr said. “Dean Blais gave me the opportunity to be in this position. Being able to play a huge part of the team and being able to develop every year, it’s a huge thanks to him and the rest of the coaching staff over the years. I cannot say enough about him and making me the player that I am right now.”
Sustr’s career in Omaha included one trip to the NCAA tournament in 2010, a year in which he was only one of three freshmen who played in all 39 games.
In 2013 he was named to the All-WCHA Third team, and has been a member of the WCHA’s All-Academic team the past two seasons.
“I think overall, every year I got stronger, I got more comfortable, my skating, with my game, my passes, all got elevated over the years,” Sustr said. “My offensive side, I picked that up every year, too. I was making small strides each year, and all those strides were pretty solid. I’m ready for the next stride of development here (in Tampa).”
When the announcement about Sustr’s contract was made on March 21, Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune tweeted that Sustr and the Lightning had agreed to terms but he had not yet signed a contract. As of Monday evening Sustr indicated that he had since signed a deal.
His two-year contract is a max-level contract, meaning Sustr could make as much as $925,000 if he earns his way onto the team full time.
Sustr left Omaha Sunday for Tampa Bay. He got into town late that afternoon, got set up at his hotel then watched his future team lose to the Winnipeg Jets that night in Winnipeg.
Monday he worked out for about a half hour with the Lightning’s strength and conditioning coach. Tuesday he was on the ice practicing with players like Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier.
“If someone would have told me five years ago when I got to Alaska that I’d be sitting in an NHL locker room I would have just laughed at them,” Sustr said. “It’s all so surreal right now. I was walking around the locker room today and reading the name plates (on the lockers). It’s something special. Seeing the names like Stamkos, St. Louis, Lecavalier…it’s just amazing. I just had to soak it in. I can’t describe it.”
For now he’s on the roster. If you visit lightning.nhl.com you can see Sustr is on the current roster and has been designated number 62.
Sustr even took center stage Tuesday night in Tampa’s 2-1 win over Buffalo. Sustr had some face time on the Lightning’s local television affiliate, fielding fan questions sent in from Twitter just 48 hours after he arrived.
But despite practice, despite the interview and despite being giving a sweater with a number on it, nothing else is guaranteed. As Sustr referenced, Tampa Bay has been a great place for getting young players time on ice in NHL games.
One of the recent prospects Sustr must have had in mind when he made his decision was J.T. Brown. Brown, like Sustr, was a college free agent who decided to forgo remaining college eligibility at Minnesota Duluth.
Brown took a contract with the Lightning about the same time a year ago. Tampa played Brown in five games last season then put him on their AHL affiliate in Syracuse, N.Y.
NHL teams are allowed to ‘try out’ a rookie player for five games then send him to their minor league club without forfeiting a year of the contract. Brown was expected to earn a roster spot for the big league club this season once the NHL came out of its lockout.
Unfortunately for Brown, he suffered a broken collarbone in late December and was unavailable when the league resumed play a month later.
Brown missed his most recent shot at making it into the NHL because of injury. But just because Brown and Sustr share similarity in how they were brought to Tampa doesn’t mean Sustr is expecting to simply avoid injury and play for the Lightning.
“I have nothing guaranteed,” Sustr said. “There wasn’t anything like J.T. Brown had last year. It’s more like a day-to-day basis. It just depends on how I do. If I deserve to be in the lineup that’s great.”
Looking at Tampa’s recent struggles in its own end shows Sustr may have a fairly good opportunity at making the roster. The Lightning came out of the lockout blazing, posting a 6-1 record.
Two years ago Tampa was one game away from making the Stanley Cup when it fell to Boston in Game 7 of the Easter Conference Finals. In Head Coach Guy Boucher’s first season the Lightning earned 103 points, and seemed to be a team on the rise.
With a trio like Stamkos, St. Louis and Lecavalier, Tampa was the hot pick to challenge for a Stanley Cup appearance for the foreseeable future. But after the 6-1 start two months ago, the Lightning are mired at 13th place in the East, six points out of playoff position.
With 15 games left on the schedule, the Lightning are near the bottom of the NHL in goals against. Tampa gives up an average of 2.97 goals per game, 23rd in the NHL. Tuesday’s 2-1 win against the Sabres snapped Tampa’s three-game skid. The Lightning are just 4-6 in their last 10 games.
“I wasn’t really deciding on the fact that they weren’t playing that well,” Sustr said about his decision to go with Tampa. “They’ve been working well with their American Hockey League team. Just what I’ve seen they’ve done a really good job. I will probably need some time in the AHL to get stronger and adjust.”
Monday night the head coaching position was filled by John Cooper, the current head man for AHL affiliate Syracuse. Prior to taking over the coaching position for the Crunch, Cooper had served as head coach of the Norfolk Admirals, the Lightning’s AHL team at the time.
Two seasons ago Cooper led the Admirals to a franchise-record 55 wins and the Calder Cup. Norfolk finished that season on a 28-game winning streak.
Syracuse currently hold the AHL’s best mark at 39-18-3-5.
At 6 feet 8 inches Sustr would be tied for second in height among all NHL players. If he gets onto the big league roster in Tampa Bay he’ll be as tall as Tyler Myers of the Buffalo Sabres, Joe Finley of the New York Islanders and John Scott who also plays in Buffalo.
Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins is the tallest player in the NHL at 6 foot 9 inches.
Sustr’s most regular partner in Omaha the last two seasons has been Jaycob Megna, another tower at 6 feet 7 inches. If he gets his chance in Tampa, Sustr may skate into a similar situation.
The Lightning already have two ultra-tall defenseman in Victor Hedman and Keith Aulie. Hedman and Aulie both stand at 6 feet 6 inches. Hedman or Aulie paired with Sustr could give Tampa General Manager Steve Yzerman the same partnership Sustr had with the Mavericks.
In 2013 that partnership produced 11 goals, 21 points, 32 points and a +37 rating
“That’s not a question for me,” Sustr said about playing beside Hedman or Aulie. “I’m just here to do my part. If I end up playing with them or someone else, as long as I’m in the lineup it doesn’t matter to me who I’m playing with.”
For now Sustr counts being in Tampa Bay as a good sign. Rather than see what he’s got in Syracuse, the Lightning flew him down to Tampa right away, put him on the practice schedule for Tuesday and gave him his own number.
Some of his opportunity may be related to the Lightning’s position in the standings, but Sustr isn’t taking anything for granted.
“Just getting in touch with all the coaches, it’s an experience you can’t get the other way (in Syracuse),” Sustr said. “It’s definitely a good thing to be down here in Tampa. If I get some games in they will decide after that what they’re gonna do with me, if they’re gonna keep me here for the rest of the year or send me down to Syracuse.”
“I’m not gonna go into anything with any mindset. I’m just gonna show up and see how it goes.”