BRANDON — Vladislav Namestnikov’s presence on the top power-play unit Tuesday meant a familiar name in a familiar spot for the Lightning.
During his previous stint with Tampa Bay, which selected him in the first round of the 2011 draft, Namestnikov skated on that unit. He knew his role — to distribute and create — allowed everything to click. Remnants of chemistry still remained with former teammates Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.
Offensive instincts and abilities defined Namestnikov when he entered the NHL. He had scored 30 goals and averaged a point per game with the OHL’s London Knights. But as the forward progressed in his career — first with the Lightning, then with a variety of teams following a 2018 trade — he rounded out his game and became more versatile.
“He’s a different player now than he was when he left,” head coach Jon Cooper said late last month. “He’s a bonafide NHL player.”
Versatility “is the word” now defining Namestnikov, Cooper said, after the 29-year-old rejoined Tampa Bay by signing a one-year deal this summer. But Namestnikov still wants to create the same offensive spark, and his chance to rekindle that with Stamkos and Kucherov will come on the power play. Namestnikov assisted on the first of Stamkos’s two goals Tuesday, and he screened Flyers goalie Carter Hart as Kucherov and Stamkos connected on the second.
“It worked last time,” Namestnikov said, “so I hope the magic comes back this time.”
Near the end of the preseason, a three-day window showed Namestnikov’s development and the differences in his skill set from his earlier years with the Lightning. In an Oct. 6 game, Namestnikov skated as the left wing on the top line alongside Stamkos and Kucherov. One day later, he centered a line in practice and worked on faceoffs with assistant coach Jeff Halpern.
And in the Lightning’s final preseason game on Oct. 8, Namestnikov centered the third line — a role he has held for the four regular-season games — and scored three goals.
When Tampa Bay traded Namestnikov to the Rangers in 2018, he had no choice but to improve his defensive game. New York slotted him into the lineup on its shutdown line with players like Ryan Strome, an unfamiliar role, Namestnikov said. So he found other players who had made the same transition and asked how they approached it.
Lightning assistant Jeff Blashill — who coached Namestnikov with the Red Wings in 2020-21 and in 2021-22 for 60 games — said the forward learned in New York that “if you’re good defensively, that usually means more ice time.” Namestnikov also played pivotal minutes on Detroit’s penalty-killing, checking and “matchup-type” lines.
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His contributions became “more complete” than when he first entered the league — something that’s often a “natural” process for players,” Blashill said.
Namestnikov spent only 49.7 minutes killing penalties during his four-plus years with Tampa Bay between 2013-17. In his first full season with the Rangers, he played a career-high 128.4 minutes on their penalty kill. And with Detroit, Namestnikov logged 38% of the total short-handed ice time for his career (186.7).
“He can play every position up front …” Blashill said. “He can play with the high-end skilled players because he’s got a mind and an ability to be able to play with those players, and he can kind of be in a checking role.”
If Namestnikov sticks at center this season, part of his role will include faceoffs. He held a career 43.8% win rate entering the season but went just 6-for-22 (27.3%) in the Lightning’s first four games. Namestnikov knows he’s not the biggest player, so that meant he needed to outsmart opponents in the circle.
Halpern has taught him “little tricks” for that. After an Oct. 7 practice, Namestnikov stayed on the ice with Halpern and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare to work on technique and secondary tactics if he couldn’t win the draw cleanly. They repeated a motion of angling the left foot in, so if the puck bounced sideways it still deflected toward Tampa Bay’s side.
“He’s one of our top guys, but he can also play literally anywhere in our lineup,” Bellemare said.
Namestnikov said it was a “no-brainer” to sign with the Lightning again when the opportunity materialized. But his improvements the last few years — and the well-rounded player Namestnikov has become — also made him an appealing addition from the team’s perspective.
He always had the necessary abilities for the power play, contributing 27 points and 68 shots to Lightning units of previous seasons. This time, the defensive inclinations followed.
“I think everyone’s got to do it,” Namestnikov said about becoming a two-way player. “It’s part of maturing as a player, and I mean, you’re not gonna be a one-dimensional player. You’ve got to know how to play defense in this league.”
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