ST. LOUIS — During the normal end-of-the-season scramble to sign undrafted college free agents, one player stood out above the rest last season.
Defenseman Andrej Sustr, who stands 6-foot-8, had many NHL suitors when he opted to leave the University of Nebraska-Omaha after three years. Ultimately, he chose to sign with the Lightning, citing how Tampa Bay has developed some of its young players during the past few seasons.
After just six months with the organization, the 22-year-old is competing for a roster spot in the NHL. Friday in St. Louis marked his second consecutive night of preseason action, and the Plzen, Czech Republic, native is making a solid case after a strong performance during a playoff run with Syracuse in the American Hockey League last season.
“You can just see he has grown,’’ Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Poise, poise under pressure, it looks like the game has slowed down for him a little bit, so he’s making some savvy plays out there. And he has confidence, and you need to play in games to get that confidence. You can sit there and do all the talking you want, but until you are put in the fire you don’t really know how hot it is. I think Sustr has grown, and that’s a good sign with the limited number of games he has played.’’
Sustr jumped right into the fire, signing with the Lightning on March 21 and appearing in two games with Tampa Bay on March 29 and April 2 before heading to Syracuse for the final eight games of the regular season and into the playoffs.
The learning curve while making the jump from college to the professional ranks can be difficult, but Sustr showed little sign of struggling. And by the time the Crunch advanced to the Calder Cup final, Sustr became a valuable member of the blue line and earned the trust of Syracuse coach Rob Zettler to play in key situations.
“He got a lot better as the playoffs went on, looked a lot more confident with the puck, made confident plays,’’ Zettler said. “There was a point — and we had a lot of defensemen down there and a lot of good players, and we were wondering who we would put in — and it just got to the point where we couldn’t take him out. And the best thing about him is, for a big guy, he’s pretty mobile, he’s got a long reach and gets his stick on a lot of pucks, so that’s important.’’
Entering his first NHL training camp, Sustr said he just wanted to keep making progress and show the coaching and management staff he can keep improving. Earning some of those big minutes, playing in big moments for Syracuse in April, May and June, helped his education accelerate even faster.
“I think (last playoffs) definitely helped me in the transition to the pro game from the college ranks,’’ Sustr said. “In Syracuse, I started playing just a few shifts per game, but I think I improved every game and I learned the system pretty quickly. I felt just more and more comfortable and started earning more and more ice time as the playoffs continued and progressed. I felt that I played really good in the finals.’’
By the end of the playoff run, after Syracuse lost in six games to Grand Rapids in the Calder Cup finals, Sustr wound up with a pair of goals — both coming in the final — and was plus-11, tied for fourth on the team.
Now he hopes to carry that progression into the final week of the preseason in an attempt to earn a spot on the roster.
“I’m just trying to do my best, be aware of what I’m supposed to do and play the system the right way, the way the coaches want,’’ Sustr said. “I think my game is improving as I learn the system more and more. ... I just want to improve, whether I’m going to play here or in Syracuse. I just have to keep improving, and that’s what I’m here for and building into a full-time NHL player.’’