Until 2019, the Ottawa Senators had gone six years without a single Russian player in their lineup. Now they suddenly have more than any team in the NHL. Since February, they’ve traded for four Russians – Vladislav Namestnikov, Vitaly Abramov, Nikita Zaitsev and Artem Anisimov.
Namestnikov is the most recent arrival, acquired from the New York Rangers this week for minor league defenceman Nick Ebert and a 2021 fourth-round draft pick. While he’s surrounded by Russian players here, he probably has as much in common with a number of the Senators’ American players. Brady Tkachuk, Christian Wolanin, Logan Brown and Josh Norris all grew up in America, the sons of NHL players. Namestnikov did too, at least for a good portion of his childhood.
The newest Senator was born in Russia in 1992 but moved to America at 8 months old, spending most of the 1990s there while his father Evgeny pursued his NHL dream. Evgeny had very brief stints with the Canucks, Islanders and Predators but spent most of his time in the AHL, particularly with the Syracuse Crunch, the same club that would later employ his son.
The younger Namestnikov spent several childhood years in Michigan where he now makes his off-season home. It’s also where his uncle, Slava Kozlov was starring for the Detroit Red Wings. Kozlov played over 1000 games in the NHL and would frequently take his nephew to games and let him hang with the players. Namestnikov enjoyed watching Detroit’s Russian Five along with Steve Yzerman, who would later draft him in Tampa in 2011.
The Namestnikovs moved back to Russia in 2001 where Evgeny went on to play five more pro seasons. By this time, young Vlad was eight years old, spoke perfect English and now had to learn Russian to keep pace in school. Meanwhile, with all of the professional hockey talent around him, it was actually his mom who pushed him to play youth hockey. She was the one that woke him up and drove him to all those early morning practices.
In 2007, Namestnikov made Russia’s national program where he’d spend three years before returning to North America to play for the London Knights. On draft day, Knights’ GM Mark Hunter compared him to a “Doug Gilmour type of player.” Those comparisons were obviously way off-target but Namestnikov does have a similar physique and does have the potential to play a skill game with high compete level.
Today, at age 26, the jury is still out on Namestnikov. This will be his fifth full season as an NHL player. Of the previous four, only one stands out and that’s 2017-18 when he recorded 44 points in the first 62 games. That was an impressive 59 point pace but came with a large asterisk. The production spike came on a line with the uber-talented Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos. Prior to being on that line, Namestnikov had been scoring at a 31 point pace. After leaving that line in a trade to the Rangers that same season, Namestnikov has moved along at a 28 point clip. For perspective, that was Zack Smith’s total with Ottawa last season.
However, considering genetics, upbringing, skill set, first-round draft status and past performance Namestnikov’s potential remains intriguing. He’s a UFA next summer and cost the Sens almost nothing to acquire. One could fairly say he’s now on the Anthony Duclair Plan – give the guy the ice time he was no longer receiving with his last team, try and restore his confidence, and see if there’s still an elite player in there.