Andrej Sustr’s NHL education has included lessons both on and off the ice.
The 23-year-old defenseman from Plzen, Czech Republic, who was completing his junior season with UNO a year ago, played briefly in the NHL with Tampa Bay last season before making the opening night roster for the Lightning this season.
He appeared in 38 games, recorded seven assists and a plus-4 rating, and was frequently skating in the range of 15 to 18 minutes per game.
But with veteran Lightning defensemen Keith Aulie returning to health, Sustr — the only Lightning defenseman who didn’t have to clear waivers — was reassigned to Syracuse of the American Hockey League in mid-January.
“It was sad and disappointing, and it would be wrong if I didn’t feel that way,” Sustr said. “But the next day I was looking at it more positively. A lot of players have to go through it — I’m not the first and I won’t be the last. So I don’t take it as a demotion as much as an opportunity to play more and grow and improve for the future.”
Tampa Bay also approached Sustr’s reassignment as an opportunity to get a little more ice time and to have roles on Syracuse’s power play and penalty kill units. Another factor is that Sustr would be able to continue playing while the NHL took a break for the Olympics.
“The one thing about Sustr is he’s not only about today, but part of our future,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper told lightning.com when Sustr was reassigned. “Sometimes a decision needs to be made if you want a player in and out of the lineup or if you want him to play 20 to 25 minutes a game for a bit of a stretch.”
Once he got to Syracuse, Sustr was quickly injured and missed several games. He since has appeared in eight games while recording a goal and an assist.
“I was a little unlucky, but that’s just a part of it, something that happens in hockey — nothing major,” Sustr said.
In addition to skating in two games with Tampa Bay last year, Sustr appeared with the Crunch in eight-regular season games and 18 more in the playoffs. He had two goals and an assist in the regular season, then added two goals and five assists and had a plus-11 rating in the postseason.
The 6-foot-8 Sustr reported for training camp at 217 pounds, slightly lighter but stronger than he’d been previously.
“I went out and worked hard and it paid off for me,” Sustr said. “I think I played some pretty good hockey.”
Having signed with Tampa Bay shortly after last season ended at UNO, Sustr said he was able to have a head start in knowing what was expected of him as well as having familiarity with his teammates.
He was also able to reconnect with two countrymen, forward Ondrej Palat and defenseman Radko Gudas.
“I’d played with them on national teams when I was younger, and against them in Czech, too,” Sustr said. “It’s kind of weird, because I’d never been on a team with other Czechs since I’d come to America. It’s great having a few guys around you know a bit from the past.”
Sustr’s past also caught up with him briefly for a November game, when he played against former UNO forward Jayson Megna and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Jaycob Megna, still a Maverick and Sustr’s former defense partner, was in attendance.
“It was great getting a chance to catch up with them,” said Sustr, who said he’s still in contact with many of his former Mav teammates.
Sustr said going from the college to professional game has required several adjustments.
“In college you played 30 to 36 games or so, and here you’ve played that many by Christmas,” he said. “So there’s less practicing and you just focus on the games. I kind of like that, because you don’t dwell on the mistakes — the games come up so fast you’ve got to focus on the next thing.”
Cooper said Sustr has adjusted well.
“If you look at some of the defensemen on our team … they’ve learned their pro craft in the AHL,” he said. “Sustr has had to learn his in the NHL and he’s done a heck of a job doing it, but that’s usually not how it works.”
Sustr, too, can recognize his improvement.
“I’ve been playing against the best players in the world every night in the NHL,” he said. “I’ve worked on my stick position and my body position. I’m not as strong as I would like to be to handle players down low. But I’m lucky that I’ve been able to play with good players who are able to teach me how to react to different situations on the ice. I’ve definitely gotten a lot better.”