Top 25 Under 25: #13 Andrej Sustr

The lanky defenseman, signed as a free agent out of the NCAA last year, was a surprise opening-night starter for the Tampa Bay Lightning. In spite of a quick trip to the press box early in the season, Sustr is well on his way to carving out a permanent spot on the Lightning blue line.

Like the player who came just before him on our countdown, Andrej Sustr was an undrafted free agent signing out of the NCAA -- the University of Nebraska-Omaha, part of the WCHA of the NCAA.

Here is how the panel ranked the 6'8, 225 lb. defenseman:

Kyle Alexander John Fontana Clark Brooks Clare Austin Patti McDonald Mike Gallimore
13 13 12 14 12 16

When Sustr decided to turn pro after his senior season, there were reportedly 20-25 NHL teams interested in signing him.

No, seriously, almost the entire league was in on him:

Those teams included the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Islanders, and Philadelphia Flyers among others, but Sustr chose Tampa Bay, another strong endorsement from a player of the Lightning organization and the roster it is currently building. The teams that weren't interested probably were but knew they had no realistic chance to sign him.

Like with J.T. Brown, Steve Yzerman has created an environment where young players can, if they deserve it, earn NHL playing time. Whereas in other cases with other franchises, depth at a position might scare an undrafted free agent prospect away from an organization, Tampa Bay's depth is actually helping to lure more depth. It's a fun time to be a Lightning fan.

Sustr himself quoted the progress the franchise as a whole has made in the past few seasons as instrumental in his decision. From Lindsay Kramer, who covers the AHL Syracuse Crunch for the Syracuse Post-Standard:

"I know their scouts. They are great people, made a great impression on me,'' said Sustr, who attended the team's development camp last summer. "I didn't see a reason why I wouldn't want to be a part of that. I'm excited to get it going.

"I think the best fit for me is Tampa Bay. Steve Yzerman, he's a well-known guy and has a great character. Also, their coaching staff, they've been doing the right things. You can see the progress they've been making.''

Signing undrafted free agents has become a regular occurrence for the Lightning, and it's one way they've built such a deep prospect pool at multiple positions. An undrafted free agent costs you nothing but money and the time spent scouting and courting him. Take a look at an incomplete list at some of the talent Tampa Bay has acquired for free in the Yzerman era:

Some of these players are knocking on the door of the NHL (Sustr, Brown). Some have already burst in (Cory Conacher). Conacher is a terrific example of how the organization turned nothing (a player nobody wanted, nobody drafted, and nobody signed) into an asset -- first, as a capable top-6 forward and legitimate Calder Trophy hopeful -- and later, as something of value to trade for goaltender Ben Bishop.

The positives on Sustr as a prospect are evident, and why he was so highly sought after. From Corey Pronman of ESPN and Hockey Prospectus:

Sustr is a very toolsy prospect with significant upside although with some risk as well. The 22 year old Junior was on the third All-WCHA team this season, notching 25 points in 39 games, putting him top 20 in NCAA scoring for defensemen. His skating is average, but notably above-average for a 6′8′' defenseman. His mobility has seen significant advancements in the last 12-24 months. He's a good puck-mover too, showing nice touch with the puck and the offensive instincts to make unusual offensive plays for a player his size. For Nebraska-Omaha on the man advantage I've seen him be used in front of the net as a screen or a primary quarterback up high. This combo of traits make Sustr a very desirable asset with the potential to be a #3 if not a #2 defenseman. He is not a player without warts though, for one even though he's a huge player with a good wingspan, he isn't all that physical. His decisions in both ends, while not a major issue, could use some work as he can make the odd bad turnover or be off with his positioning.

Lightning fans will agree with Pronman's assessment having seen him in a few NHL games so far. He's incredibly poised in his own zone for such a young player and hasn't yet made the type of horrific mistakes young NHL defenseman are typically prone to. His size is impressive, but he uses his reach and his stick way more than his body, and probably needs to get a bit stronger, particularly in board battles against big forwards. The big knock on Sustr has consistently been his skating, as is usually the case with 6'8 hockey players:

When you're that size you're at an inherent disadvantage speed/skating wise, so its no surprise Sustr went undrafted. Many teams (the Lightning included) have gone after players for their size only to watch them quickly bust -- think Vladimir Mihalik or Matt Smaby. Chasing size for size's sake is not a good player scouting model. Fortunately for Sustr (and for Tampa Bay) he was a bit of a late-bloomer, as several people have noted that his feet got significantly better over his final season in college, which is why he generated so much interest on the open market. His offensive tools were always apparent, and with the improved skating, there's very little to worry about when projecting Sustr as a full-timer NHLer with top-pairing upside.

In his first five NHL games this season, Sustr's played mostly on the bottom pair with Eric Brewer, but he has also spent time with Victor Hedman (notably when Sami Salo was briefly out with an injury). In those 5 games, his time on ice has dipped below 16 minutes only once -- the 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, where nearly half the game was played not at even strength and Sustr logged only 12:19. Sustr is coming along well as an NHL defenseman, but it might take some time before he's trusted with important penalty kill minutes or earned power play time. But as a traditionally defensive defenseman with good size and better reach combined with a big shot, Sustr has all the tools to be a three-zone, all-situations defenseman, which is rare in today's NHL.

His possession numbers are pretty solid considering his usage: 60.7% Corsi For (3rd on the Lightning) and he currently has the lowest PDO (on-ice save percentage + on-ice shooting percentage) of any Lightning regular at 923, so he's moving the puck in the right direction and eventually some pucks are going to start finding the back of the net when he's on the ice. He's getting 55.5% offensive zone starts (9th on the team, and right around what most other Lightning skaters are getting) so he isn't be aggressively sheltered by Cooper, either.

He recorded his first NHL point in a 5-1 drubbing of the Los Angeles Kings, an assist on Martin St. Louis' 2nd period goal on a delayed penalty to Los Angeles. Sustr displayed some of his offensive upside on that play, carrying the puck deftly through the neutral zone and zipping backhand pass to Steven Stamkos in stride, who glided into the Kings zone and fired a hard wrister on net, leading to St. Louis' rebound goal. As usual for young NHL defenseman, learning when to pick your spots to pinch in or be aggressive with the puck will be the focus for Sustr moving forward.