TAMPA — Lightning rookie defenseman Andrej Sustr is 6 feet 8, so there aren't many players he has to look up to.
But one of them is Bruins star defenseman Zdeno Chara, a 6-foot-9, 256-pound menacing force who has been a model for Sustr. Sustr, still growing into his wiry 225-pound frame, knows he is not yet close to being the enforcer Chara is.
"We'll see," Sustr said, smiling, "Maybe that side will develop a couple years down the road."
The Lightning loves what the future holds for Sustr — who turns 23 today as the Lightning takes on the Penguins at the Tampa Bay Times Forum — and how far he already has come, considering the undrafted Czech was playing for the University of Nebraska Omaha this time last year. Sustr has seen regular action this season — including a season-high 21:44 of ice time Monday in a 5-0 win over the Rangers — because Tampa Bay knows he needs reps to develop and mature.
But Sustr has also earned his coaches' trust due to his size, smarts and skill. He just needs his strength to catch up.
"If there's anything holding Sustr back, it's just his physical body makeup," coach Jon Cooper said. "He's still kind of got a little bit of a boy's body. He doesn't have a pro body yet.
"He's going to be growing into himself. We get him a year or two in the weight room and really working on his core strengths, and when he starts physically to mature, you're going to see the kid jump leaps and bounds.
"But that doesn't take away from how heady a player he is, how smart he is, being in the right positions," Cooper said. "He is not afraid to try to make a play even if it costs him a mistake, because we're encouraging that. All those aspects of his game are there. It's just his physical strength needs to be better."
Sustr has played in just 20 NHL games, two of them last season after getting signed in March. He has made his share of rookie mistakes. Cooper said Sustr can be overwhelmed in the defensive zone by some bigger players. But assistant coach Rick Bowness raves about Sustr's hockey sense and "innate confidence" in jumping into a rush, not to mention a reach that's great for gap control in the neutral zone.
"It's kind of Chara-esque in a way," Cooper said. "He can stand on your blue line and put his stick on the far blue line. It's hard to get through there."
Sustr said it might have been a surprise to many, including himself, that he made the team out of training camp. But having looked back on his journey, he appreciates every moment.
Sustr grew up working in his family's store in Plzen, Czech Republic, selling interior glass doors for homes. He came to the United States at age 17 to play junior hockey in Alaska, and after a season in the junior United States league and three at Nebraska Omaha, he made it.
His parents, Jaroslav and Dita, flew to Tampa last month for a couple of home games.
"It was definitely special," said Sustr, who has six assists and is plus-5 in 18 games. "Coming into the States and playing in Alaska five years ago, I kind of wouldn't never imagined having (his parents) here and me playing in the NHL."
And Sustr hopes he'll stay for a long time.
"He's in the infancy of his career," Cooper said. "If he's playing like this, can't wait to see him months, years from now. It'll be a lot of fun."