Namestnikov Adds NHL Experience to Development Path

By Jeremy Houghtaling

Vlad Namestnikov received the unexpected news earlier this month.

The Syracuse Crunch center went through a range of emotions when he learned he would be making his National Hockey League debut with the Tampa Bay Lightning Feb. 8.

“It was an unbelievable feeling,” Namestnikov recalled. “Nerves, excitement -- everything together.”

During the first 31 games of his sophomore season, Namestnikov accumulated 13 goals and 30 points to earn the look from the Lightning. Despite already eclipsing his rookie season output of 28 points in 62 games, the first step onto the NHL ice seemed imposing.

“The first period I just couldn’t believe I was there,” Namestnikov said. “Everything seemed so fast and everyone was so big.”

But by the second period, Namestnikov was acclimated. The Lightning’s 2011 first-round pick soaked it in, realizing experience is one of the keys to developing his game.

Reunited with former Crunch linemates JT Brown and Nikita Kucherov, Namestnikov logged 11:55 of ice time and went 3-for-6 from the face-off dot against the Detroit Red Wings. The Russian-born but Michigan-raised forward added a hit and a takeaway.

“The chemistry was definitely still there,” Namestnikov said. “It was a blast playing with those guys. They’re great players.”

Lightning coach Jon Cooper was pleased.

"I couldn't have asked for more," Cooper told after the game. "He did everything we asked in all ends of the ice and it has been great to watch his progression. He didn't look out of place at all and that was great to see because he is going to play in this league at some point."

Although he was predictably shipped back to the American Hockey League after the game with the Olympic break starting, Namestnikov could be challenging for a regular spot in the NHL soon.

As the Crunch’s top line center, the 21-year-old -- who missed more than a month with a hand injury -- leads the team in power play goals (6), is tied for second in goals (13) and is third in points (30).

Syracuse coach Rob Zettler, who has seen Namestnikov up close since his professional debut last season, wasn’t surprised by Cooper’s glowing review of Namestnikov’s debut.

“He’s got NHL speed without a doubt,” Zettler said. “He fit in there really well.”

Namestnikov, listed at 6-foot, 183 pounds, spent the offseason working on getting bigger and stronger. He put on more than 10 pounds of muscle, making him more of a force when he hits the ice.

But the biggest factor in Namestnikov’s progress has been his level of experience.

“It’s definitely easier when it’s your second year,” he said.