Answer This, Raw Charge: Pleasant Surprises
This year's Tampa Bay Lightning team is full of new faces, fresh young legs, and unexpected contributors. Some of the new vets were expected to step right in, and some of the young guys were expected to step up. So who are the surprises this year?
Clark Brooks, Staff writer, Ridiculously Inconsistent Trickle of Consciousness, @clarkbrooks.
I'd have to say Sustr. I thought he would make the team and contribute but I can't say that I thought he would be ready to serve as a top four defenseman. I guess this is one of the very few "bright" sides of injuries; finding out who will step up and fill gaps. Sustr has answered that call. If nothing else, it would appear that he's further along in his development than most people thought he would be at this point.Kyle Alexander, Staff Writer, Associate Editor of Bolt Statistics, @kalexanderRC.
The obvious choices are obvious -- Ben Bishop sure has been surprising. He's kept his SV% at elite levels for over a third of the season so far. Valtteri Filppula is also a good choice here; he's, so far, exceeded even the most optimistic projections for how'd he fill in and produce as 2nd line center. But my choice is Andrej Sustr.
Sustr, you'll recall, was signed by the Lightning as a undrafted free agent out of the University of Nebraska-Omaha after his junior season. So, unlike say, Alex Killorn, he doesn't have the benefit of a full four years in the NCAA. That makes his ascension up the depth chart and into a regular spot on the Lightning blueline this season all the more surprising -- and impressive.
Almost everyone making lineup projections for this year, myself included, saw the depth at defense and assumed Sustr would spend some time, perhaps even the full year, with the Syracuse Crunch, to adjust to the pace and the grind of the professional game. But Sustr came into camp and claimed a spot outright. He's outshined a few more heralded defense prospects (Eddie Shore Award winner Mark Barberio, I'm looking at you) and his right-handed shot gives him a leg-up into more playing time. He's played in 27 games for the Lightning so far this year, one fewer than Victor Hedman and two fewer than Radko Gudas, and he's 6th among defenseman in TOI/game so to call him a staple on the blue line is not an overstatement.
He's shown tremendous poise and awareness in the defensive zone, using his good instincts and making good decisions with the puck on zone exits. He might not use his size as a physical presence, but his reach is impressive and his stick work for breaking up shot attempts or passes through the slot is second to none. (It helps that he wields a stick taller than many of his teammates.) He's also a pretty good skater for a guy his size, capable of gliding through the neutral zone in a few strides and starting a rush, something that is rare for most of the guys on the Lightning blueline aside from Victor Hedman.
Sami Salo's contract expires after this year, and while I expect the plan all along was to have Sustr replace Salo in the top-6 by 2014-2015, his play has sped up that timetable quite a bit. That's been the biggest pleasant surprise for me so far this year.
John Fontana, El Generalissmo Supremo de Raw Charge, @Johnny_fonts.
With doubts in goal for the Lightning since... oh, 2005-06, the most pleasant surprise has been Ben Bishop. That's not to dismiss forward and defensive contributions, but the Lightning had lacked a lights-out netminder that can steal games. I had my doubts that Bishop would be adequate, let alone stellar. You can blame that on the statistics of Tampa Bay goalies since 2010-11, where every goaltender who started the season in Tampa struggled to maintain a .900 save percentage.
Runner up in the pleasant surprise category: The Lightning in the shootout. They're actually scoring. It's remarkable and that second point earned goes far.
Clare Austin, Back-Up Editor, @CAustinRC.
It's tough for me to pick one person for this. I didn't expect Bishop to put up a .930 season (and I still think it's unreasonable to expect that to continue indefinitely), but I did think something in the mid-.920s was possible, so that's not a huge shock. Andrej Sustr is--well, I think Kyle covered how good he's been and how no one even expected him to make the team this season. Nikita Kucherov has been better than I expected. I'm pretty sure that if Vladislav Namestnikov hadn't been injured, he'd have gotten that call, but Kucherov is fitting in nicely. Valtteri Filppula has been amazing, contributing far beyond his scoring. Such a fantastic help in the possession department and he's made it possible for the younger guys to manage the learning curve. But still, when Yzerman signed him, the word on him was possession, so as pleasant as he's been, it's still not the most surprising player.
In fact, keeping with the surprise theme, I'm going with Kristers Gudlevskis. I know he's not technically a Lightning player, but he's got to be the surprisiest of the pleasant surprises. No one had heard of him before this summer's draft. He was on no one's list. Literally no one whose job it is to talk about the NHL draft said one, single word indicating that this guy might have his name called. He wasn't considered a long shot. He simply wasn't considered at all.
Then, once drafted, he was expected to play another year in the KHL. Nope. He came to North America immediately, saying he wanted to play in the NHL eventually. Okay, he'll go to the ECHL, we said. Then came development and training camp and everyone realized that the plan wouldn't work very well for very long at all. It threw so many people for a loop how good this kid is. And I'm STILL floored that literally no one saw this coming, that someone could be at this level of development at age 21 and no one knew one thing about it.
And of course, there is a passionate community of Lightning fans who also want to share their opinion. Please tell us in the comment section what you have been surprised by so far this season. Also, tell us how much you love us, or how much you want us to shove it. Remember, we won't know what to shove, or where, without your valuable input. All Hail Brian Bradley!
(Nolan Whyte is a fourth-line bench warmer at Raw Charge. He blogs hockey at Frozen Sheets Hockey and created Jerry the Bird. Tell him off @NolanWhyte.)