During training camp and in the four games he played with Tampa Bay in 2013-14, the former first-round draft choice (27th overall in 2011) was often pushed off the puck.
As a result, his main attributes, speed and offensive creativity, were often negated.
Over the summer, Namestnikov made a conscious effort to hit the weight room, building strength while continuing to improve his speed in an effort to earn a permanent spot on the Bolts roster.
That offseason approach hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Tampa Bay coaching staff.
“Just watching him on the power play and battling for pucks in corners, he’s a different guy than he was last year,” Lightning assistant coach Steve Thomas said. “…That’s a tribute to a real strong summer and training hockey specific. He’s done a good job.”
The 21-year-old center spent most of last season with Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse, where, in 56 games, he scored 19 goals and collected 29 assists for 48 points, despite breaking his hand when it was hit by a shot in late November.
Namestnikov made his NHL debut on February 8 against the Detroit Red Wings. He played three more games with the Bolts without registering a point before going back to Syracuse for the remainder of the season.
The short stint in the NHL gave Namestnikov a taste of what he would need to improve to stick in the league.
“I’m not the biggest guy, so I knew I needed to put on some weight and get stronger,” the 6-foot, 183-pound Namestnikov said. “That’s what I worked on mostly in the summer. I spent a lot of time in the gym getting bigger, faster.”
Namestnikov also arrived in Tampa Bay ahead of training camp to take part in voluntary team workouts and become more familiar with his teammates.
“I came in two weeks before camp started, and I feel like that’s the biggest difference this year is confidence,” Namestnikov said. “I feel more comfortable around the room.”
The extra effort has shown in the results on the ice. In the preseason opener against the Nashville Predators at Amalie Arena, Namestnikov, playing on a line with Jonathan Marchessault and Nikita Kucherov, assisted on three of the Lightning’s four goals in a 4-2 win and had another solid performance two days later against the Predators in Nashville.
Namestnikov said his familiarity with Marchessault and Kucherov has helped in training camp this season as well.
“They’re both great players, and obviously I have fun playing with them,” Namestnikov said. “I played with (Kucherov) at the beginning of last season in Syracuse and with (Marchessault) at the end of the season. Knowing what those guys can do and how they compete, it’s a fun way to play.”
Namestnikov is battling with a handful of players for one of the remaining spots on the Lightning roster and could get squeezed in a numbers crunch. Should he be assigned to Syracuse to start the season, however, the Bolts coaching staff can feel confident bringing the Russian back as an injury replacement or extra forward.
Jonathan Drouin wore a red, no-contact jersey while on the ice for the first of three practices for the Lightning at Germain Arena in Estero, Fla. After pre-game skate, the 19-year-old forward told reporters the fractured right thumb that has kept him from participating for nearly two weeks is feeling better but still a little painful.
“We’re going in the right direction,” Drouin said. “I think there’s a couple more weeks [rehab] left, and I’m sure I’ll be fine by then. Progress has been really good.”
The initial prognosis suggested Drouin would miss three to four weeks once the fracture was revealed in an X-ray. Drouin said he would like to be available for Tampa Bay’s season opener against the Florida Panthers on Thursday, October 9, but also realizes that date might be too early to return.
“Opening night would be my goal, but if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen,” he said.
Brenden Morrow, who was signed by the Lightning from St. Louis during free agency, is day-to-day after experience back spasms at Monday’s practice. Morrow didn’t skate Tuesday and didn’t travel with the team to Dallas for game No. 4 of the preseason Tuesday night.
Thomas doesn’t think the injury will keep Morrow sidelined for a long period and expects the NHL veteran, entering his 15th season in the league, to not miss a beat once he’s ready to get on the ice again.
“He’s trained very, very hard this summer to be able to take a few days off and to still be at the same level,” Thomas said. “You don’t lose that overnight. It’s just a matter of him doing all the treatments necessary.”
STAMKOS, OTHERS STAY BACK
Also remaining in Estero while the rest of the team travels to Dallas for tonight’s preseason game are Steven Stamkos, Ryan Callahan, Victor Hedman and Evgeni Nabokov. Ben Bishop will play the entire game in the Bolts’ goal against the Stars, who will start former Lightning player Anders Lindback in goal.
Stamkos said he’ll use the afternoon and evening off to hit the links with some of the other guys staying behind.
“I try to get (a round of golf) in as much as I can before the season starts,” he said.