As a coveted 22-year old undrafted free agent coming out of the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Andrej Sustr impressed in split time between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL before injuries derailed his rookie season.
While the tools and upside are all there with Sustr, the expectation heading into 2013-14 was that Sustr would spend at least a full year as a top-pair defenseman in Syracuse as he adjusted to the grind of the much longer professional schedule. An unexpected injury to Sami Salo saw Sustr in the opening night lineup where he logged over 20 minutes of ice time and didn't look at all out of place playing against some of the league's best in the Boston Bruins.
Here's how the panel ranked him:
|Kyle Alexander||John Fontana||Clare Austin||Mike Gallimore||Clark Brooks|
Last Year's Ranking: 13
Managing Editor John Fontana's ranking helped pull Sustr up the board two spots from a year ago, as Sustr underwent a good-not-great first year in the professional ranks.
There were some really good signs: Sustr is incredibly poised with the puck, has good instincts to move it out of trouble, and defends so much space in the defensive zone with his massive wingspan and long stick. He's not all size, though, as his skating has improved significantly and his ability to read the play is consistently underrated.
Watching Sustr in limited NHL action in 2013-14, you might have noticed that he looked very good at times, specifically next to Victor Hedman:
Of course, just about everyone looks good next to Victor Hedman, but the pair really was fantastic in a small sample (~150 minutes of 5v5 time spent together). Both guys are decisive in the defensive third and capable of starting a rush through the neutral zone, and they both use their fantastic reach to keep plays alive in the offensive third. Sustr might not have Hedman's vision or passing skills, but he proved to be a more than capable partner for Tampa Bay's #1 blue liner. Here's a quick chart to summarize, showing Victor Hedman's stats with his most common partners in 2013-14 (minimum 100 minutes of 5v5 ice time and sorted by descending ice time):
|Corsi For/20||Corsi Against/20||Corsi For %||Goals For/20||Goals Against/20||Goals For %|
That chart really makes you wonder just how great Hedman might have been with a full season next to a more mobile, puck-moving partner like Sustr or Barberio instead of Sami Salo on his last NHL legs. With the two youngsters, Hedman was outstanding -- the Lightning played noticeably higher event (riskier) hockey, moving the puck back and forth, but did a phenomenal job (albeit in a small sample) of controlling both possession of the puck and scoring a high percentage of 5v5 goals.
With Salo and Gudas, Hedman was still good, but demonstrably less productive in almost every way: shot generation, shot suppression, goal scoring and goal prevention.
Of course, with Anton Stralman and Jason Garrison in the fold presumably to fill top-4 roles, Sustr likely starts the season as the fourth right-side defenseman on the depth chart. That could mean more time to develop in Syracuse -- he's waiver exempt to start the season, and will retain that exemption for up to 15 more NHL games per Cap Geek. At least some time spent in the AHL might not be the worst thing for Sustr, who still only has 65 total games of professional experience in his belt between the AHL and the NHL. Battling injuries limited him to just 12 games with the Crunch a year ago, so getting him through a full season unhindered is a good idea.
That said, the tools are there, and he's seen good-on ice results when given the chance to play a top-4 NHL role. He played over 17 minutes 17 times last year and while there are still some holes in his game he's already proven to be a capable NHLer and could still easily develop into a very good top-4 defender.
With a one-year, one-way deal signed this offseason, keep your eye on Sustr, who will be earning NHL salary ($874,125) no matter where he plays.