Lightning sees bright future for Andrej Sustr

Lightning defenseman Andrej Sustr shoots against the Nashville Predators in the first period of a September preseason game at Amalie Arena in Tampa.
Lightning defenseman Andrej Sustr shoots against the Nashville Predators in the first period of a September preseason game at Amalie Arena in Tampa.
Published Nov. 20, 2014

TORONTO — A couple of weeks ago, Lightning defenseman Andrej Sustr spent his off-night in Columbus taking a trip down memory lane.

Sustr, 23, watched from the stands as former teammates at the University of Nebraska-Omaha played Ohio State. The next night, he picked up an assist in a victory over the Blue Jackets.

"It kind of put things in perspective," Sustr said. "Just to get a feel for where you come from. It was great years in Nebraska, kind of got me here. I'm pretty grateful."

It wasn't that long ago — about 20 months — that Sustr was playing for the Mavericks. But now he is logging 15-plus minutes a game with the Lightning, the 6-foot-7, 220-pound Czech continuing to get a feel for how to play the position in the NHL.

It's often thought it takes around 200 games for a defenseman to find his game in the league, and Sustr plays his 64th tonight against the Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre.

For Sustr, the best is yet to come.

"You've got to look at his body," coach Jon Cooper said. "He's 6-7. He's kind of a lanky guy and slowly getting his feet under him. But one thing (Sustr) has going for him is he's got a great head for the game. Whatever you want to say, 300 games or 200 games it takes for defensemen to get acclimated to the NHL, there's a lot of truth to that. You have to learn you have more time than you think.

"It takes game reps, and slowly but surely I think (Sustr) is coming into his own, and we need him. We've been lacking some right-handed shots over the years, and now we have (Anton Stralman), Sustr and (Radko Gudas). We're kind of stabilizing that side, and he's a big part of it."

Sustr has gone through his share of growing pains since signing out of college on March 21, 2013. There have been times he has been caught out of position or has pinched too far in on a rush; he was minus-4 in a 7-2 loss in Minnesota on Oct. 25. But lately Sustr has played some of his better hockey and is plus-5 through 18 games.

"I think I've been consistent; that's my main focus," Sustr said, "so Coach knows (what) he's getting out of me when I go on the ice. I've been playing well defensively. I'm getting more and more comfortable.

"It's going to take some time for me to adjust to everything and how to play properly at this level."

Cooper says the game is slowing for Sustr, to the point he is more focused on making a play than worried about making a mistake. Sustr isn't flashy, tallying just three assists, and doesn't skate like Victor Hedman. But with good positioning, Sustr can play a strong, steady game. His size, stick and savvy make him a key cog on the penalty kill, and his poise allows him to jump into the rush.

The Lightning is relying more on Sustr than it did last season, when he split time between Tampa Bay and AHL Syracuse.

"Last year there weren't many expectations for me, being the guy that kind of popped up in camp and made the team out of nowhere," Sustr said.

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"This year brings a little bit more expectations out of me, and more pressure. But I think I've been handling it pretty well and playing steady."

Contact Joe Smith at Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

. Tonight

Lightning at Maple Leafs

When/where: 7:30; Air Canada Centre, Toronto

TV/radio: Sun Sports; 970-AM

Key stats: The Maple Leafs are a mess, having dropped three straight, including losses to Buffalo and Nashville (at home) by a combined score of 16-4. And now the Lightning (13-5-2), the second-highest-scoring team in the league, comes to town with hometown star C Steven Stamkos (12 goals, 10 assists). … Stamkos has 13 goals and 13 assists in 21 career games against Toronto. … The Maple Leafs are 5-6 at home. … C Cedric Paquette (lower-body injury) is considered day to day. … RW Brett Connolly (lower body) could return to the lineup. … G Ben Bishop, expected to start, is 3-4 with a 2.99 GAA in nine career starts against Toronto.

Joe Smith, Times staff writer