WINNIPEG — Heading into the season, general manager Steve Yzerman said Jonathan Drouin and Vladislav Namestnikov would get an opportunity to earn bigger roles in the Lightning lineup.
In short, they needed to step up.
And though Drouin gets most of the attention for his rise to the top line with captain Steven Stamkos, Namestnikov, 22, has quietly been one of the team's most consistent forwards, plus-3 heading into tonight's game against the Jets.
Coach Jon Cooper said Namestnikov had to keep "fighting and fighting" to get to the NHL, having split last season with Tampa Bay and AHL Syracuse. But Namestnikov's play and poise have solidified a regular spot in the lineup.
"He's been a puck-possession guy. He's putting the puck in the net (two goals)," Cooper said. "He's not spending time in our zone. When you need a big goal like we needed against Buffalo (a 2-1 win Saturday), who was the guy who got it? Vladdy. He's done everything we've asked and more, and he deserves to be in the lineup every night."
Namestnikov, a first-round draft pick in 2011, has been a fixture on the fourth line, with veteran center Brian Boyle on his left wing and either J.T. Brown or Erik Condra on the right. Though Namestnikov has averaged just 9:51 of ice time, his line has been a factor in several games, including turning around a 6-3 come-from-behind win in Boston on Oct. 12.
Saturday against Buffalo, Namestnikov tied the score with a breakaway goal, giving him goals in consecutive games for the first time in his career. One of Namestnikov's biggest strengths is his poise. Cooper quipped that the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Russian has "ice in his veins."
"He wants to make plays," Boyle said. "He's got that confidence with the puck. That's a hard thing to develop as young player in this league, and if you have it, you're ahead of the pack. He's obviously a younger player, but to come in on a team like ours and have an impact, it shows you he's going to be a special player."
After racking up nine goals and seven assists in 46 games last season, Namestnikov was a healthy scratch in 14 of 26 games during the Lightning's playoff run. But Namestnikov learned from it. He knew he had to get better defensively and spent the summer working on his speed.
"There's a lot of bigger guys in this league," Namestnikov said. "So I need to be fast."
Though Cooper believed his team didn't play with its trademark speed in the first six games of the season, he noted Namestnikov as an exception. That's part of Namestnikov's game, too.
"I remember coming up myself and hearing all these different ways of playing," Boyle said. "He's done a good job of playing to his strengths."
Boyle, one of the team's most versatile players, has welcomed the switch to wing, though he often helps Namestnikov by taking faceoffs (Namestnikov is 14-for-34 on draws). How Namestnikov develops in the middle could be important to the Lightning's future plans considering he's on a one-year deal.
For now, Namestnikov is embracing a steady role after an up-and-down 2014-15 season.
"That's the way it was meant to be, I guess," Namestnikov said. "I took it well, I went down, played a lot of minutes, which helped me a lot."
IN NET: Cooper indicated he was leaning toward starting goalie Ben Bishop tonight. Bishop could also play Saturday in Chicago, depending how he feels and how tonight goes. "Obviously I feel pretty good," Bishop said. "Not 100 percent, but I feel all right to play. Two fun places to play, Winnipeg and Chicago, both fun areas, so not hard to get up for."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.