Big defenseman Oleg Sosunov is in the house

The 6’8” Russian may look like a basketball player, but he’s a hockey player.

Bryan Burns tweeted yesterday that Oleg Sosunov was in Tampa and skating with fellow Tampa Bay Lightning players. It’s the first time Sosunov has been to Tampa (or the United States for that matter), and he’d had trouble getting a visa to come to Tampa for development camp the past two years.

Sosunov was a late-round flier for general manager Steve Yzerman, picked 178th overall in the 6th round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. Standing at 6’8” and weighing in at 225 pounds, he does bear some resemblance to Andrej Sustr. In fact, fellow writer iActium commented “Did Sustr lose some weight?” when he first saw the tweeted picture.

Sustr is listed at 6’7” and 220 pounds. If the listed measurements are to be believed, Sosunov already has a little more weight on his frame.

Sosunov has been a relative unknown for Lightning fans and prospect followers. The story goes that a Tampa Bay Lightning scout spotted him in an MHL-B league game. That’s the Russian junior leagues second tier. Not even the top tier of Russian juniors. The second tier. The Lightning sent a second scout to check out Sosunov, and they liked what they saw in him.

There was a definite feeling that Sosunov was going to be a project. The size stands out but his offense certainly didn’t. In 2014-15 in MHL-B, he scored six goals and nine points in 49 games. In 2015-16 in MHL-B, he scored four goals and 12 points in MHL-B and was scoreless in three MHL games.

In 2016-17, Sosunov went through a major dry spell on the score sheet. He started the season with three games in the JCWC and was pointless. In 32 games in the MHL, he was pointless in 32 games and pointless in one playoff game. He played eight games in MHL-B and was also pointless. He finally broke his scoreless drought when he got three assists in five MHL-B games.

Despite his lack of offensive prowess, he still managed to be a +11 over all 49 games. Plus-minus is not the greatest indicator of success. But with little else to judge him on, and considering his lack of points, it’s hopefully a good sign that his defense is pretty good. He did have 101 penalty minutes, but I believe that is due to his willingness to fight as shown in this YouTube video, although it appears he was given a five for fighting and another 20 penalty minutes on top of that.

In a bit of a surprise, the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL drafted him 45th overall in the first round of the CHL Import Draft this summer. The Tampa Bay Lightning have certainly built a relationship with Moose Jaw—they have had a player with this team since Brayden Point was drafted in 2014, and added Brett Howden in 2016. So looking back at it, perhaps it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise.

Moose Jaw had two import players on the roster last season in Nikita Popugayev, who was drafted in the fourth round this summer, and Dmitri Zaitsev, a 2016 seventh-round draft pick. Popugayev was having a terrific year for Moose Jaw, but the team decided to trade him at the deadline to the Prince George Cougars for fellow import Yan Khomenko, Justin Almeida, a second-round pick, and a fifth round pick.

Perhaps Moose Jaw already knew at the time that they were going to bring in Sosunov in the summer and wanted to get the most out of Popugayev by trading him at the deadline. Khomenko has since been traded to the Victoria Royals, leaving them with space for Zaitsev and Sosunov on the roster.

Moose Jaw will be a good landing spot for Sosunov. With Zaitsev as a fellow Russian defender who has been in North America for two seasons already, Zaitsev will be able to help Sosunov settle in. Additionally, Sosunov will get the opportunity to work with and get to know Brett Howden during Lightning training camp which will hopefully help ease his transition in with Moose Jaw.

Additionally, Moose Jaw is returning a pretty strong roster that was in the chase for the WHL Championship last season. Brett Howden will return for another year as Captain of the Warriors. Luka Burzan had a solid rookie season and has an opportunity to assume a bigger role in the offense as he heads towards draft eligibility. The Warriors also have some good veterans in Jayden Halbgewachs (101 points in 71 games), Noah Gregor (61 points in 52 games), and Brayden Burke (82 points in 61 games) returning on the front end.

On the blue line, not only does he have Zaitsev to lean on, but there will also be 2017 second-round pick Josh Brook and potential first-round 2018 draft pick (and candidate for best name in the 2018 draft) Jett Woo. The only down side it that Zaitsev and Sosunov are both left handed. If they were opposite handed, then it would be natural for them to be lined up together. Sosunov could be paired up with Brook or Woo. Sosunov could provide his more offensively gifted partner with a defensive anchor that can cover up when they go offensive.

This year will be a big year for Sosunov’s development. The Lightning have already shown a commitment to him by giving him an entry level contract. It’s possible that that was necessary to get him to leave Russia and come to what should be a more favorable development league for him. It’s also possible that they had to give him the contract to help him get his visa issues cleared up to come up.

Either way, they’ve committed to four years of Sosunov. This year will be big for him and we’ll be watching eagerly to see how he plays and develops. He’s still a long shot to make an impact in the NHL. That doesn’t mean that we won’t be cheering for him and hoping that we can have another towering defenseman roaming the blue line.