Namestnikov comes as advertised
Versatile forward will play centre on second line in absence of Dubois
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CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — He still hasn’t had much of a chance to stop and catch his breath. However, Vladislav Namestnikov is feeling more comfortable with each passing day as he adjusts to his new surroundings.
That includes a return to the middle of the ice, with the Winnipeg Jets pressing their newest player into a key position following an injury to Pierre-Luc Dubois.
Namestnikov, 30, will suit up on Saturday night against the Florida Panthers on a line between Nikolaj Ehlers and Blake Wheeler. The Russian product made his debut there on Wednesday in Winnipeg’s 4-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild.
“Honestly, I didn’t really,” Namestnikov told the Free Press when asked if he envisioned being the second-line centre less than a week after he was obtained in a trade from the San Jose Sharks.
“I was just coming in with an open mind. Wherever the coaches see me and need me, I’ll play there. I’ve played centre before, so I’m comfortable in that position.”
Namestnikov has registered a pair of assists in his first three games with the Jets and has come as advertised. He’s a strong skater and tenacious forechecker with some offensive upside who can play up and down the lineup.
“Very comfortable with him in any situation out there,” Jets coach Rick Bowness said Friday. “He has a very high Hockey IQ, and you can put those guys in any position. I was very comfortable putting him in that position for Dubie, and that line looked good.”
Dubois has been ruled out until Tuesday’s game in Carolina at the earliest.
“He’s a really smart player,” Wheeler said of Namestnikov. “He keeps the game simple, he’s easy to read off of. You kind of know where he’s going to go, you know where the puck is going to go. I’ve enjoyed it. He’s fit in really well.”
Indeed, an argument can be made that Winnipeg’s two best players over the last few games have been Namestnikov and the other trade addition, Nino Niederreiter, who is on the other top offensive line with Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor.
Namestnikov began this year with the Tampa Bay Lightning and played centre for the first dozen games until some injured players returned and he moved back to the wing. He was traded to San Jose for former Jets forward Michael Eyssimont, then flipped to Winnipeg in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick.
It’s been a whirlwind first week in his new hockey home.
“Whenever you come in on a new team it’s different strategies, different systems. You kind of have to pick it up day by day,” said Namestnikov. “With each practice you kind of feel more comfortable. You learn more about the routes and that kind of thing. I think that’s the main challenge. But as you move forward it comes eventually.”
It also helps to get out on the road with your new teammates.
“Yeah, for sure. You go out for dinners and to lunches with the guys. You kind of get to know everyone on a personal level,” said Namestnikov. “We had a team dinner (Thursday). I got to know a lot of the guys more, and hopefully we can continue that.”
Namestnikov will get to face his most recent former team — we’re not counting the Sharks, since he never even reported to them — when the Jets play the Lightning on Sunday.
“It’s just another game,” he said. “Just focus on the Winnipeg Jets. The way we need to play. These are very important games coming up, so just focus on that.”
He does have fond memories of his time in Tampa, especially during the 2017-18 season when he scored a career-high 20 goals, along with 24 assists, while primarily playing on a line with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.
“It was a lot of fun. That year, it felt like everything was working, clicking. It was definitely a great experience,” he said.
Although he’s now seen as more of a secondary depth-type player, the pending unrestricted free agent believes he still has plenty of offence to offer,
“I’m the same player that I was back then,” said Namestnikov. “I think as I’ve played more games in the league I’ve become more responsible. Like on the defensive side. I can play up and down the lineup. So wherever coaches see me on different teams, that’s not up to me. I just have to go out there and play.”
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.