ORLANDO — Two years ago, Vladislav Namestnikov arrived at Lightning training camp as a bit of the wide-eyed first-round pick getting a taste of his first professional experience.
Namestnikov appeared in one preseason game that training camp before heading back to the London Knights in the junior ranks. Two years later, the once undersized center has one year of professional hockey under his belt, has added some sized to his 6-foot frame and is knocking on the door to jump to the NHL. He gets his first taste of preseason action during this camp when Tampa Bay hosts Nashville tonight.
“I think confidence is the biggest difference for me from the first camp,’’ Namestnikov said.
The nephew of former Detroit Red Wings forward Slava Kozlov — a one-time linemate of Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman — Namestnikov gained that confidence from his play last season with Syracuse, Tampa Bay’s top minor-league affiliate in the American Hockey League. Though he was slowed by a shoulder injury suffered in the first month that kept him out of the lineup for three months, he quickly caught up to speed.
By the time Syracuse was playing in the Calder Cup final in June, Namestnikov was a regular top-six forward playing big minutes for the Crunch.
“Vladdy went from potential healthy scratch (at the start of the season) to a guy that was hurt, to a top-six forward, and he did that all in one year,’’ said Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who was the coach with Syracuse before being promoted to Lightning bench boss. “So that’s a really, really good sign of a prospect to see somebody do that.
“Regardless of what happens here, whether he makes the Tampa Bay Lightning or he has to go back and get more seasoned in Syracuse, there is just bright signs ahead for him, because you can tell the way he has developed himself in his first year pro.’’
In 44 regular-season games with the Crunch, Namestnikov registered seven goals and 21 points. In 18 postseason games, the 27th overall pick in the 2011 draft had two goals and seven points.
But Namestnikov’s game is not always measured by points.
Though he is capable of being a playmaker and playing an offensive role with other skilled players, he is a defensively aware center who can go against other teams’ top lines. That versatility makes him a valuable asset for any coach.
“He is really aware on the ice and just has an extremely high skill set,’’ Cooper said.
Since his draft year, when Namestnikov tipped the scales around 165 pounds, he has bulked up to 185 pounds, and that has helped him. Back in that first training camp, “it was real easy to knock me off the puck, now it’s a little bit harder,’’ he said.
While the added muscle has certainly helped his cause on the ice, his quick adaptation making the jump from junior the AHL in a short period of time is the biggest reason for his ascension up the depth chart.
“You can see where these guys, and I say it time and time again, when the game slows down for them, and I think it’s done that for Vlad, especially when I got to watch the playoffs,’’ Cooper said.
Namestnikov is in a battle with more than a handful of other players for a few open roster spots heading into the start of the regular season. But like any young player in his position, the 20-year-old doesn’t want to overthink the situation or try to step outside himself to make an impression.
“I just to need to play my game, get out there and play well in the defensive zone, take it into the offensive zone, try to prove that I can make the team,’’ Namestnikov said. “I think the coaches know how I play, and I just need to continue doing that, and hopefully if they like me I can make the jump to the next level.’’