It’s kind of funny. A lot of us around Raw Charge thought we would be writing this post last summer after the expansion draft. Then General Manager Steve Yzerman went out and did what he does - he pulled off an unexpected trade with Montreal that sent a disgruntled Jonathan Drouin to Montreal and freed up a spot on the protected list for Vlad Namestnikov. That bought us a little extra time with the versatile Russian forward. He rewarded us (the fans and the team) with his best season to date, scoring 20 goals and adding another 24 assists.
Once the rumors started heating up about the Lightning making a big splash on or before deadline day, Namestnikov began to look like the odd man out. His contract status as a restricted free agent who had earned a sizable raise next year made him made him the most prominent member on the roster to be included in a deal. The emergence of Brayden Point and the resurgence of Tyler Johnson also made it even more enticing to trade him. Not to mention that there is a bevy of potential replacements currently learning the professional game in Syracuse.
Drafted late in the first round of the 2011 draft, Vlad Namestnikov was part of the first draft class that Mr. Yzerman and his team really had a chance to focus on. It also might go down as the greatest class in the history of the organization. Namestnikov was, at that time, known as one of the few Russians who played in the OHL instead of Russia due to his family settling in the Michigan area after his father, John, retired from the NHL. His skating and offensive prowess was widely praised with there being a little bit of concern about his size (a trait that continues to this day with Mr. Yzerman’s draft picks).
With the OHL experience and Mr. Yzerman’s relations
hip as a former teammate to Vlad’s uncle Slava Kozlov made the threat of Namestnikov bolting to the KHL less likely. The youngster was determined to play in the NHL, telling teams before the draft that he had no intention on playing in the KHL He spent one more year in the OHL playing for the London Knights and putting up 71 points in 63 games.
He debuted in Syracuse (an organization his dad had played for) in 2012-13 and was playing well into a shoulder injury forced him onto the shelf for a large portion of the season. He managed to appear in 44 regular season games and recorded 21 points. During the Crunch’s run to the Calder Cup final he added another 7 points in 19 games.
A broken hand the next season dented his playing time a bit, but he still managed to appear in 56 games for the Crunch and posted 48 points skating alongside Nikita Kucherov and JT Brown (ov). The strong season led to a brief 4 game call-up to the Lightning.
He returned to Syracuse to start the 2014-15 season and showed that he had learned all he needed to by posting 35 points in 34 games. That led to his recall by Tampa where he added 16 points in 43 games. He also appeared in 17 post-season games as the Lightning made their surprising run to the Stanley Cup Finals.
It was also then that fans started begging for him to be used more, a trend that would continue over the next three seasons in Tampa. As fluid of a skater and as offensively-minded as he was, he often found himself playing down on the third and fourth lines. It wasn’t until the 2016-17 season that he saw some consistent time at the top line with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Unfortunately for Namestnikov, that fun quickly dissipated once Stamkos was lost to a knee injury. He was right back to bouncing around all over the line-up.
Prior to the season, loserpoints wrote one of the best posts this site has seen about the potential of Namestnikov on the Lightning. The numbers showed that the speedy center was ridiculously good at one of the most important things in hockey - getting the puck into the offensive zone.
This season broke with him firmly ensconced on the top line with Stamkos and Kucherov and it paid off as the Lightning rushed out to a tremendous start and Namestnikov was contributing right along with the two bigger named stars. He had 13 points in the first month of the season as the Lightning were steamrolling opponents on their way to first place in the Eastern Conference.
However, as the season went on, his production started to fall off a bit and by the time of the trade he had fallen back down to the third line. Granted, it was still a dangerous third line, more geared to offense than defense, but he wasn’t seeing the ice time with Stamkos or Kucherov any longer.
He will be remembered fondly in Tampa as part of the Russian “mafia” along with Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Mikhail Sergachev. There will also always be the sense that his talent were never completely used to their fullest here in the organization.
As fast and as skilled as he is (odd wanting to write “was” as if he’s not playing any longer) he is also one of the tougher players on the team. This is his first career hat trick:
The three goals show the total package that he brings to the ice. On the first goal he picks up the puck in the neutral zone and outskates everyone to the front of the net and buries his shot. The second goal is a deflection in front of the net. The third is a rebound that he outworks the other players for.
For a player that is listed at a generous 6’0” and 170 lbs., he takes no quarter from anyone on the ice. If there is a scrum on the ice, most likely he’ll be involved in it and he’s not afraid to drop the gloves from time to time (hockey fights has him competing in 6 career fights during his NHL tenure).
Best of luck to you in New York, Vlad Namestnikov. We enjoyed your play here in Tampa.