Skating on the rink inside the Onondaga County War Memorial Arena, home of the American Hockey League’s Syracuse Crunch, a young Vladislav Namestnikov never imagined he’d grow up to play for the same club his father spent three seasons competing with.
“After practice, my dad would take me on the ice and I would get to skate with him,” Namestnikov said. “I never would have thought that I’d end up here too, but it’s pretty neat that it worked out that way.”
A Vancouver draft pick in 1991 who would go on to play for the Canucks, New York Islanders and Nashville Predators, Evgeny Namestnikov skated in 173 games with the Crunch from 1994 to 1997, the franchise’s first three seasons of existence.
Vladislav was selected by the Tampa Bay Lightning, Syracuse’s current NHL affiliate, with the 27th pick in the 2011 NHL Draft.
Rob Zettler, who has served as Syracuse’s coach since Jon Cooper was promoted to Tampa Bay last March, sees evidence of the younger Namestnikov’s hockey pedigree manifested each time the second-year forward takes the ice.
“You can see it in his hockey sense -- he’s got a gift that you can’t teach,” Zettler said. “He’s got a feel for where the puck is going and an offensive flair that not everybody has. Having a dad that played hockey, he’s been around it all his life.”
Born in Russia while his dad was playing with CSKA Moscow in 1992, Namestnikov and his family moved to North America when he was just eight months old. It wasn’t long before his future in hockey began to take shape with the help of his father, as well as his uncle, two-time Stanley Cup champion Vyacheslav Kozlov. Kozlov would take his young nephew into the Detroit Red Wings locker room, where he was a teammate of current Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman.
“I got to go to a lot of games and hang out with the players,” Namestnikov said. “It was a huge experience in my life.”
Evgeny Namestnikov finished his 17-year playing career back in Russia, and Vladislav began his own journey to the NHL when he joined the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights in 2010. He was drafted by Yzerman and the Lightning after putting up 69 points in 68 games during his first OHL season in 2010-11.
Namestnikov was assigned to Syracuse by the Lightning prior to the 2012-13 season, and recalls his father’s words of wisdom upon his advancement to the professional leagues.
“He told me to keep my head up,” Namestnikov said. “The guys are a lot stronger and bigger, everything is much faster and it’s much more physical, so you have to make decisions quicker.”
As a rookie last season, Namestnikov scored 21 points in 44 regular-season games; this season, he’s leading all Syracuse skaters with 28 points in 24 games despite missing six weeks due to injury. The scoring increase speaks to just a portion of his overall progress, according to his coach.
“Obviously his numbers have shown the improvement in his game, but his play away from the puck has also improved,” Zettler said. “He works hard at his craft and takes it very seriously, and he’s really fun to coach because he’s so receptive to improving.”
Namestnikov’s skills were honed at the American Hockey League’s highest caliber when he competed with Syracuse in the 2013 Calder Cup Playoffs; the Crunch reached the Finals for the first time in franchise history before falling to the Grand Rapids Griffins.
“It was huge for my career,” Namestnikov said. “Going that far helped me realize what the AHL is all about, and I think that I have so much confidence this year because we made it that far last year.”
Zettler notes it was during his team’s postseason run when Namestnikov truly began to shine.
“At first during playoffs, he was a third- or fourth-line guy,” Zettler said. “He started playing so well that we moved him up and he was our second-, sometimes first-line center for most of the playoffs. He really responded by playing well and putting up points.”
Namestnikov’s early success with the Crunch has put him in a position to potentially follow the trajectory of numerous former Syracuse players who have advanced to Tampa Bay’s roster, including Tyler Johnson, Radko Gudas, Richard Panik, Ondrej Palat and Mark Barberio.
“We’ve always said in this organization: If you’re playing well and are working hard to improve, and the results are there, we’re going to find a way to get you to the next level,” Zettler said. “That provides a lot of incentive for our players here. They see guys going up to Tampa and being successful in the NHL.”
For now, Namestnikov is enjoying learning in an environment he’s known since his childhood.
“It’s meant a ton [to be a part of the Crunch], and it’s awesome to get to play for a team my dad played for,” he said. “Syracuse obviously has a great fan base, and there are so many good things I could say about the organization, so I’m happy to be here.”
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