In a move that will likely cause opposite reactions among fans, the Tampa Bay Lightning re-signed 26 year old defender Andrej Sustr to a one-year contract at a cost of $1.95 million. The team also re-signed forward Yanni Gourde to a two-year contract at $1 million per year.
For most of last season, Sustr paired with recently traded defender Jason Garrison. That pairing was one of the team’s major weaknesses. Part of their struggles was due to being used as the second pairing, but that alone was not enough to justify their poor results. We covered the pair’s struggles in this article.
Later in the year, Sustr moved into a third pairing role alongside Braydon Coburn. That pair was much more effective than the combination of Sustr and Garrison. His late season improvement does indicate that perhaps working with Garrison against difficult usage was too much for him. Maybe he can find some success in a more sheltered third pairing role. If that’s the case, a $1.95 million commitment for one year is just the right amount to pay for that role.
The Bolts currently have seven capable defenders who will be looking to make the roster out of camp. Anton Stralman, Sustr, and Jake Dotchin are the three righties. Projecting pairings is difficult given all the changes on the blueline but we can imagine something like:
Victor Hedman - Jake Dotchin
Mikhail Sergachev - Anton Stralman
Braydon Coburn - Andrej Sustr
In that scenario, Koekkoek and Sustr would likely compete for minutes as Coburn is able to play the right side as well. But the above is far from guaranteed. Dotchin hasn’t clearly established himself in the top-pairing role. Sergachev still a wild card without any real NHL experience. The Bolts are also still reportedly talking to free agent defenders including Kevin Shattenkirk, so it’s far too early in the summer to rule out more major changes to the structure of the blue line.
While some fans may have hoped to see the Lightning move on from Sustr this summer, bringing him back on a short-term, team-friendly deal makes sense given how the roster is currently constructed. The only major risk is that he ends up being a blocker for Slater Koekkoek, a player who needs to get a chance to play this season. Given that Sustr gives coach Jon Cooper a right-handed option to play on the third pair instead of going with two left handed players in Coburn and Koekkoek, that seems to be a real possibility
Sustr showed at the end of the season that he’s a capable NHL defender in the right role. The question was whether he would continue in Tampa Bay or get a start in a new city. With this signing, we have our answer. What his role ends up being will likely be determined in camp. The Bolts already have lots of competition on their blue line and seem willing to introduce even more if the opportunity arises.
Gourde’s story this season is the opposite of Sustr’s. He didn’t become a regular for the Bolts until late in the season. But when he did, he made a huge positive impact. We covered his amazing results here.
While he played too few minutes last season, to draw major conclusions, he was one of the best Bolts forwards at driving play and the team was consistently better with him on the ice than without. His scoring was likely a mirage but even an ability to score at a third of fourth line pace would be exceptional value at this price.
Signing Gourde is the kind of low risk high upside move that deserves to be complimented. Even in the worst case scenario, the Bolts have signed a low cost option to fill out the bottom of the roster. But in the best case scenario, they have a player who can be a third liner that drives play with some scoring pop.
No one expects Gourde to perform the way he did at the end of last year for a full season. But if he plays like some combination of that, the player who was a leader on the Syracuse Crunch as they went all the way to the Calder Cup finals, and the player who put up solid numbers all year in the AHL last season, the Bolts should have a regular contributor at a bargain price.
As for his role in Tampa, expect him to compete for a spot on the third line. With Jonathan Drouin traded, Brayden Point will likely slide up to a wing position on the second line leaving the third-line center role open. Gourde should compete for that role as well as the wing spots, should another player like Matt Peca or even Anthony Cirelli make big strides and be ready for the third-line role.
Both moves today represent low-cost ways to fill out the roster and leave the team plenty of flexibility to make bigger moves if they decide to go that direction. The Lightning have lots of big decisions to make in the coming weeks but so far, the summer is off to solid start.