TAMPA — When Hall of Famer Phil Esposito first saw Lightning prospect Oleg Sosunov, he joked that the 6-foot-8 defenseman could reach the Amalie Arena ceiling.
But Esposito, 75, also shared some high praise, saying Sosunov reminded him of a young Zdeno Chara, the 6-foot-9 Bruins captain.
Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness, who coached Chara as an Islanders rookie, said Sosunov is a better skater than Chara was at that time.
"(Chara) is a great player, a Hall of Famer, so I'm not knocking him," Bowness said. "But (Sosunov) can move quick for his size. The rest? We'll see."
Sosunov, 19, was one of the more intriguing prospects in the Lightning lineup for Tuesday's exhibition opener, a 2-1 loss to Carolina that featured nine slashing calls, at Amalie Arena.
Bowness said they want to see how the 2016 sixth-round pick adapts to the smaller ice surfaces, having just come from Russia to North America this summer. So far, so good, Sosunov making a smooth debut Tuesday.
While it's also way too early — and unfair — to compare Sosunov to Chara, there is a sense the Lightning might have found a late-round gem.
"(Sosunov) has a bit of a nasty side to him, and Chara did too," said Tim Hunter, a former NHL forward who will be Sosunov's junior coach at Moose Jaw (WHL). I think he'll be capable of playing in the NHL. He's skilled enough, smart enough, big enough, strong enough, mature enough. Now it's just a matter of processing the game. He's going to be a player, I know."
Sosunov said he didn't start playing hockey until he was 10, having also tried swimming. His parents were track and field stars in Russia, but Sosunov said it took a long time for his skating to catch up with his growing frame.
"He's a huge guy — I look small compared to him," joked defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, who is 6 feet 3. "He's a good skater for 6-foot-8, has got a long reach, good shot. Has a quick shot. You don't expect him to shoot but he shoots. He makes smart plays and is a really good player."
Lightning scouting director Al Murray said scouts Kari Kettunen and Yuri Yanchenkov spotted Sosunov, who had racked up just four goals and 12 points in 47 career games over two seasons with Russia's Lokomotiv Jr.
"I'm not saying he's going to put up huge numbers, because I don't think so," Murray said. "But I think he's got potential to be a good puck mover, he's got a big body, skates really well and competes hard."
With Hunter having coached Lightning center Brayden Point and prospect Brett Howden, the organization was comfortable with Sosunov going to Moose Jaw to develop. When Sosunov arrived in Moose Jaw a month ago, his equipment was late in getting there. The Warriors didn't have large enough pants to fit Sosunov (extra large, extra long) and had to custom make gloves. Still, Sosunov played well. Hunter was impressed with his grasp of the English language, his coachability and high hockey IQ.
"We hope," Hunter says, "he'll become another Chara."
NUTS AND BOLTS: First-round D Cal Foote made his exhibition debut, with his father, former NHL defenseman Adam, in the stands. "Kind of a dream my whole life," said Foote, who played 21:56. … Carolina RW Justin Williams, who scored a power-play goal, said the Lightning was one of the teams that pursued him in free agency. "Definitely something I looked at for sure," he said. … J.T. Brown, Andrej Sustr, Vladislav Namestnikov were among a short list of regulars in the lineup. … F Adam Erne scored on a power play off a slick feed from Matt Peca. … RW Alex Volkov (second) and LW Alexey Lipanov (third), both taken in the June draft, stood out. … The league continued its planned crackdown on slashing, with seven such penalties in the first two periods. … Those who aren't playing in tonight's exhibition in Carolina will practice from 10:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m. at Brandon's Ice Sports Forum (open to the public).