Lightning Land Sustr

The Lightning are getting another bonus pick this year.

TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported early this evening that University of Nebraska-Omaha defenseman Andrej Sustr has agreed to terms with the Lightning. The club announced the signing a few hours later:

The Tampa Bay Lightning have agreed to terms with defenseman Andrej Sustr to a two-year entry level contract, vice president and general manager Steve Yzerman announced today.

Sustr, 22, skated in 39 games with the University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks this past season, recording nine goals and 25 points to go along with 53 penalty minutes. He ranked first among Nebraska defensemen in goals and points. Of his nine goals last season, four were scored on the power play and he also ranked tied for second on the Mavericks with 10 power play points. The 6-foot-8, 225-pound defenseman participated in the Lightning’s Summer Development Camp this past summer.

“Andre is a big, mobile, right shot defenseman with very good skills. We feel he has great potential to develop into a good NHL player,” Yzerman said. “We’re excited to have him join our organization.”

The Plzen, Czech Republic native has skated in 111 career NCAA games with the Mavericks, posting 15 goals and 51 points to go along with a plus-24 rating. This season Sustr set career highs in goals, assists (16), points, plus/minus and power play goals.

Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune reported Sustr will join the Lightning after their road trip. Damian Cristodero of the Tampa Bay Times reported Sustr does not have NHL games as part of his contract this year like J. T. Brown did last year, but Yzerman said Sustr will get in some games with the Bolts and be re-evaluated after each game.

Unlike Brown, Sustr is eligible to join Tampa Bay's AHL affiliate for its playoff run if that is what Yzerman decides, per Cristodero and Erlendsson.

The Lightning were one of up to 20 teams reportedly after the undrafted, unrestricted free agent. Former Leafs GM Brian Burke once said signing an NCAA free agent is like finding a wallet. Teams don't have to spend a draft pick and reap the rewards.

Under NHL rules, contracts like the one Sustr signed are even among all teams, therefore the decision comes down to recruiting and organizational appeal. This is the second straight season the Lightning have “won” a coveted NCAA free agent after they signed Brown last year. They are still reportedly in the running for Western Michigan defenseman Danny DeKeyser, though it will be tough to beat the Red Wings for his services.

Though fans may want to compare Sustr to Bruins superstar defenseman Zdeno Chara because of his size, Sustr’s height and heavy shot are where the comparisons end. Sustr’s strengths include his reach, hockey sense, and puck movement. He is not an overly physical player like Chara and his decision-making has been criticized at times. In other words, he is still a raw prospect like most defensemen his age and he will likely need at least a year in the AHL next season before finding a permanent spot in Tampa.

Sustr is the first "bonus pick" of 2012. Previous free agent prospect signings include:

2012: W Cory Conacher, W Danick Gauthier, W J.T. Brown, D Artem Sergeev, D Dmitri Korobov
2011: D Dan Milan, C Tyler Johnson, G Pat Nagle
2010: D Charles Landry

Opinion: With Sustr coming to Tampa initially, he likely slots in the depth chart after Brian Lee. Circumstance (read: out of playoff race) may have him get in a few games as a 6 or 7. Next year, he probably starts on the organizational ladder behind Mark Barberio, which may or may not be on the NHL roster. Since Yzerman wants his prospects playing, that could mean Sustr gets his minutes in the AHL to start next year.

Note: Cristodero also reported that Yzerman wants to sign 2008 pick, Luke Witkowski, a right-handed defenseman from Western Michigan University. Like DeKeyser, Witkowski can't be signed until WMU's season is over. WMU, who was eliminated from the CCHA playoffs last week, are awaiting a possible at-large bid to the national tournament. That will be decided on Sunday.