Monday, December 18, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning's glimpse of future

OTTAWA — Before Lightning rookie defenseman Andrej Sustr plays his first NHL game, he will practice three or four days with the team to get a feel for his new surroundings.

"It's a whole different ball game," coach Guy Boucher said, adding he likely will have seven defensemen in the lineup for Sustr's debut instead of six.

"So, we can ease him in," Boucher said, "and not ask too much of him."

Funny Boucher should put it that way given how much Tampa Bay has leaned on its first-year players this season. In fact, when the Lightning faces the Senators today at Scotiabank Place, it will have seven rookies in the lineup.

When Sustr, signed Thursday out of the University of Nebraska-Omaha, joins the team next week, it will be eight.

There also is this: Rookies included, Tampa Bay has nine players on its roster who were with AHL Syracuse this season or AHL Norfolk last season.

The infusion happened, mostly, because injuries opened spots. But the young players, for the most part, have stuck and are not only contributing but giving the organization a glimpse of its future.

"You don't imagine it," Boucher said of the youth movement. "It's not that we didn't want to see them. We're doing what we wanted to do probably over a year and a half and two years. We've done it in about a month."

"Young guys bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm," rookie forward Alex Killorn said. "That's what we're trying to do here, bring a ton of energy, be first on puck, do the little things."

How much have the rookies helped? Killorn (two) and fellow forwards Cory Conacher (two), Ondrej Palat (one) and Richard Panik (one) have six of the Lightning's 13 winning goals.

Conacher leads league rookies with 22 points and 14 assists. Killorn is a fixture on the power play and penalty kill. Center Tyler Johnson has a goal and four points in four games, is plus-5 and has won 20 of 29 faceoffs. Defenseman Radko Gudas is getting almost six hits a game.

It is no coincidence, Boucher said, they all won a Calder Cup last season with Norfolk under coach Jon Cooper.

"The further you go in the playoffs in the American League, that's the closest you get to NHL-caliber," Boucher said. "Collectively you create a sense of urgency and battling and paying the price. That gives you confidence you can do it at this level."

Still, there is a learning curve.

Conacher, for example, has had to up his defensive game, and Gudas must battle the urge to throw huge checks that take him out of position.

And, as Boucher said: "Your expectations have to be different. I can't expect Johnson to come in and replace Vinny Lecavalier," out with a broken left foot.

Perhaps not, Johnson agreed, but he and his fellow rookies have the same sensibilities. "We want to be here and help out as much as we possibly can."

LEE ON WAIVERS: To make room for Sustr, defenseman Brian Lee was put on waivers. Lee, 25, will be assigned to Syracuse if he clears at noon today.

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