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Top 25 Under 25, #4: You don’t appreciate Vladislav Namestnikov enough — yes, you specifically

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Vladislav Namestnikov is a unique player who fills a vital role for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Detroit Red Wings v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

The Top 25 Under 25 is a collaboration by members of the Raw Charge writing staff. Four writers, plus a special guest, ranked players under the age of 25 as of September 1, 2017 in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization. Each participant used their own metric of current ability and production against future projection to rank each player. Now, we’ll count down each of the 25 players ranked, plus Honorable Mentions.

Want to rank players yourself? Go for it!

Vladislav Namestnikov has settled into a role as the versatile do-anything forward for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Drafted in the first round 27th overall in 2011, Namestnikov has been a full-time player for the Lightning for the last two seasons. He’s played everywhere from the first line to fourth line and been successful in every role the coaching staff has assigned him. Namestnikov is a unique player and this article will attempt to showcase why his particular set of skills is valuable to the Lightning in ways that might not be immediately obvious.

In this analysis, we’ll start broadly and then dig deeper into particular skill sets using a variety of metrics. To start, here is a basic overview of his season from our end of year player evaluations. All data in this table comes from corsica.hockey, which is currently under reconstruction and should relaunch before the season.

Here we can get an overview of Namestnikov’s outputs and identify some areas for further digging. The immediate thing that catches the eye is that he just doesn’t score. Primary scoring rate is a key indicator for forwards and Namestnikov struggles in that area. He scored at the pace of a low-end third-liner this season. If we stopped our analysis at scoring, we would write off Namestnikov as a middle-six forward and move on to more pressing concerns. But the rest of the metrics in this chart tell a different story.

If we look all the way to the right, we see that Namestnikov is an excellent driver of both shot share and expected goal share. The Lightning garner a greater share of the shots and expected goals when he is on the ice than when he is not. His impact on expected goal share is especially impressive.

The way Namestnikov achieves these results is mostly by driving offense. His impact on generating both shot quantity and quality is a positive for the Lightning. His defensive impact isn’t as impressive via these metrics, but is still an overall positive. And that positive defensive impact combined with an exceptional offensive impact results in strong overall impacts.

Before we dig further, we can compare this year’s results to the previous three seasons combined using his player card from hockeyviz.com. We see a similar story. Despite not scoring much himself, he has a positive impact on both shots and goals. His usage is slightly favorable but not enough to raise any concerns and he hasn’t been particularly lucky or unlucky in achieving these results.

So at this point, we have a picture of a player who despite not scoring much himself, seems to propel the team to better results when he is on the ice compared to when he is off the ice. That begs the question of why that might be happening. It could just be a coincidence—maybe his teammates just happen to play better with him. Or it could be that he’s doing something other than scoring that helps drive positive results.

Thanks to recent work in the area of manually tracking key statistics, we can try to find evidence that the team’s results with Vladdy on the ice are something other than a coincidence. To start, we’ll use Corey Sznajder’s zone exit and entry data. Players who excel at taking the puck from the defensive zone through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone help tilt the ice in their team’s favor. This data contains 28 Lightning games from 2016-2017 so far and will continue to grow as Corey continues tracking over the summer.

The chart above shows zone exit results for forwards and defenders on the Lightning relative to the rest of the league. Namestnikov’s impact in this area is genuinely among the best in the NHL. He almost always gets out of his own zone successfully and frequently does so with possession. The bubbles in the graph are sized by how often that zone exit leads to a zone entry and again, he is among the best in this area as well. Clearly, one of Namestnikov’s specialties is getting the puck out of the defensive zone, through the neutral zone, and into the offensive zone successfully.

This chart looks at the second part of the transition game, which is getting into the offensive zone. Namestnikov doesn’t stand out as significantly in this area as he did in zone exits, but he is still above average in entering the zone with possession—and the percentage of his zone entries that lead to a shot is about league average.

If we take a holistic view of Namestnikov’s neutral zone impacts, he is a high end transition player who specializes in starting the transition from defense to offense by getting out of the defensive zone with possession, leading to a successful zone entry.

Another area where we can examine particular skills is in passing data using the methodology devised by Ryan Stimson. Below is a chart that uses data tracked manually over the last three seasons by volunteers including Ryan and Corey. It identifies several different key metrics and shows how players rate by each. A deep dive on this concept can be found at Hockey Graphs. To help read this chart, consider each band to essentially represent performing at a level consistent with a given line where the inner band would be fourth line and the outer band first line.

As expected based on what we saw above, Namestnikov rates as a first-line player in transition play. But the more interesting part of this chart is that we get some additional information on other strength areas. He also rates as a first-line player in several passing areas including build-up play, primary shot assists, and total passing. This indicates that he frequently makes passes that ultimately lead to shots for his teammates.

We also see his weaknesses captured here. He isn’t much of a shooter and doesn’t often contribute to the most dangerous kinds of shots.

Having methodically moved through this analysis, we now have a reasonable picture of Vladislav Namestnikov as a player. He doesn’t score much. He’s not much of a shooter on his own. But the team usually achieves positive results when he’s on the ice because of his skill in the transition game and his passing ability.

So while we established earlier that he has a positive impact on the team, one final piece of information to consider is how he impacts individual teammates. That will help us understand whether the idea that he helps his teammates achieve better results holds up on an individual level as opposed to just a team level.

The chart below is again from hockeyviz.com. To read it, look for the gap between the player’s black box and the player’s red box. If Namestnikov is truly having a positive impact on his teammates, we expect to see the black boxes in a better position (more to the top right).

Even after seeing all of the information above, some of the impacts here are still surprising. Star players like Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat achieve much better results with Namestnikov than without him. In both cases, the shot generation is similar but the shot suppression is much better with Vladdy on their line. If we’re trying to tie all of the information in this post together to understand those results, we might surmise that Vladdy’s skill in exiting the defensive zone and in transition helps boost the shot suppression numbers.

That thought process might give us an indication of why the Kucherov, Namestnikov, Steven Stamkos line was so successful. Perhaps a player who is happy to bear the burden of defensive zone work and starting the transition game without needing the puck in the offensive zone is an ideal fit with two offensive dynamos like Stamkos and Kucherov. We need to see more of them together to confirm that idea, but it seems a reasonable guess as to why that line was so dominant at the beginning of last season. (The videos at the end of this article provide some additional context in this area.)

If Namestnikov has another low-scoring season, which seems likely, his contract negotiations next summer will be interesting. While our understanding of specific skill data like zone exits, zone entries, and passing is only beginning, it certainly seems that a player like Namestnikov might be prone to being undervalued by traditional metrics. If that’s the case, the Lightning would be smart to keep him long term. He’s shown flexibility to play anywhere in the lineup and seems to have a specialized skill set that fits well among the group of elite scoring forwards the Lightning have in the top six.

Normally, I would close here by saying something about how a player could take the next step in their career. For Namestnikov, the obvious thing would be to bump up his scoring. But I’m not sure that’s the case. Maybe the next step for him is to get even better in the neutral zone and improve his ability to pick out his teammates with passes to dangerous areas in the offensive zone.

Our understanding of how to evaluate players is constantly evolving and Vladdy represents an interesting case. I’m looking forward to seeing where he slots in the lineup next season and how he utilizes that opportunity to impact the team.

This post wouldn’t be possible without work by Corey Sznajder, Micah Blake McCurdy, and Ryan Stimson. You can support Corey’s work here and Micah’s work here. You can find Ryan on twitter.

Video Highlights and Examples:

Be sure to watch the entire highlight because sometimes the initial video of the goal doesn’t fully capture Namestnikov’s contributions.

Zone exit example: Namestnikov starts the transition game with a pass to Kucherov that ultimately leads to a goal by Sustr.

In this series of tweets, Bob Roberts highlights Namestnikov’s ability to drive the center lane in the offensive zone in response to the Sustr goal above. This is one one example of how he helps create scoring opportunities for linemates like Stamkos and Kucherov without touching the puck.

Transition play example: Namestnikov carries the puck from the defensive zone all the way through the neutral zone and eventually makes a royal road pass to Braydon Coburn for a shorthanded goal.

Zone entry example: Namestnikov receives a pass in the neutral zone and carries into the offensive zone to set up another royal road pass for a finish by Kucherov.

Transition pass example: Namestnikov reads the play in the defensive zone, deceives the defense with a fake, and makes a pass that sends Matt Peca into the offensive zone cleanly for a goal.