By ROGER MOONEY
TAMPA — Nikita Kucherov is piling up the goals. Steven Stamkos is an assist machine. They make for an impressive pairing in a league that favors scoring pairs over the more traditional three-player scoring lines.
So, what to make of Vladislav Namestnikov, the third player on the Lightning’s top line?
"He secretly makes that line work," coach Jon Cooper said.
Namestnikov, the Lightning’s first-round draft pick (27th overall) in 2011, is quietly having a great start to the season with three goals and 10 points in the first nine games. He is doing it quietly because of the explosive starts by Kucherov (tied with Alex Ovechkin for the NHL lead with 10 goals) and Stamkos (an NHL-high 15 assists and league-leading 18 points).
"We’re making plays, putting pucks in the net," Namestnikov said. "Hopefully it continues."
Namestnikov is not one to sing his own praises. He kept his answers to questions about his game pretty vanilla after a recent practice.
About playing with Kucherov and Stamkos: "They’re great players. I just try to read off them."
About his role on the line: "I just try to play my two-way game, go in the corners and get those pucks and just try to make plays."
About emerging as a goal-scorer himself: "I try to do everything, scoring goals, assist on their goals. I just try to be more of a complete player and work on all aspects of my game."
Namestnikov provided glimpses of this early last season when he played alongside Kucherov and Stamkos. That was before Stamkos was lost for the season with a knee injury in mid November and Namestnikov found himself moving from line to line as Cooper dealt with the injuries to his forwards that followed.
Stamkos said the chemistry that he and Kucherov developed with Namestnikov last year has returned.
"He’s always been a guy that’s curious for me," Stamkos said. "You see the potential that he has. For him to get an opportunity where he can build some confidence for our line and get his confidence going I think is a big part, too, he can go out there and play."
Cooper said it takes time for all players to develop their game at the NHL level. Some, like Stamkos, do it fairly quick. Others, not so much.
"Vlady had to overcome some mental hurdles of how hard it is to establish yourself in this league," Cooper said. "I have to give him a ton of credit, because he has hung in there. He has had to play out of position. He has had to play all up and down the lineup, and all he has done is keep standing at the door and saying, ‘I’m going to do it.’ Right now, he’s doing it."
Namestnikov brings an all-around game to the line. He is tough on defense, blocks shots, wins faceoffs, does the dirty work in the corners. He has improved his speed. He’s developing a scorer’s mentality, which means he’s not just content to put the puck on the net; he wants to finish the play.
Namestnikov also sees the ice well, which allows Kucherov and Stamkos do their thing without him getting in the way.
"You find a way to fit in with the line," associate coach Rick Bowness said.
Cooper said Namestnikov plays on that line for a reason.
"Who’s the guy who’s blocking the shot at the end of the game? Who’s the first guy who’s going in there first on the forecheck? Who’s the guy who took every D-zone faceoff and won down the stretch (in Thursday’s win at Columbus)? Vlady," Cooper said.
"We always say you earn you stripes here, and he is earning them."