Vladislav Namestnikov scored a career-high 22 goals last season. This year, entering the Rangers’ game Wednesday against the Boston Bruins at Madison Square Garden, he had four.
And yet, if you ask Namestnikov, 26, whether he is a better player now than he was a year ago, he would tell you yes, he is.
“I think so,’’ Namestnikov said this week when asked that question. “I think I’ve learned new things and kind of added new things into my game that I didn’t have before.’’
A year ago, Namestnikov was playing on one of the best lines in the NHL, with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov on the Tampa Bay Lightning. Through 62 games, Namestnikov had 20 goals and 44 points, and the Lightning were one of the elite teams in the league. Life was good.
But at the NHL trade deadline, Namestnikov was dealt away from the Stanley Cup-contending Lightning and sent to the rebuilding Rangers, as part of the package that came to Broadway in exchange for Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller. He was the least heralded part of a deal that brought prospects Libor Hajek and Brett Howden to the Rangers, along with a first round pick in the 2018 NHL draft and a conditional second-rounder in the 2019 draft that will become a first if the Lightning win the Cup this spring.
The trade came as a shock to Namestnikov, but there was no time to process it fully. The Rangers had a game in Vancouver two nights later, and Namestnikov had to leave quickly, without getting a chance to say goodbye to his Tampa Bay teammates in person. He had a goal and an assist in his first game as Ranger, but that turned out to be half his entire production in 19 games with the Blueshirts.
A restricted free agent last summer, Namestnikov re-signed with the Rangers, a two-year deal worth $4 million per. But things didn’t start well this season, as he found himself a healthy scratch in the second game. Since then, though, Namestnikov has changed his game considerably. He’s toughened up, dishing hits, taking hits and working the walls and corners. And he seems to have endeared himself to new Rangers coach David Quinn. Quinn has used Namestnikov at all three forward positions, and played him on the first line, the fourth line, and everywhere in between. He’s also played him on the power play and on the penalty kill – something Namestnikov never did in Tampa Bay.
“I just love the fact that he skates; he competes; he’s got a good set of hands,’’ Quinn said when asked why he seems to like Namestnikov so much. “He’s turned into a reliable player. And I think he’s got the ability to play in all those situations… and I feel confident putting him in those situations.’’
“I think I’m just trying to play the right way,’’ Namestnikov said. “Just compete every shift I go out there and try to bring energy to the game and try to do those little things that coaches like when players do.’’
Of course, all the things that make him a favorite of Quinn’s could make Namestnikov a candidate to be traded again this year, as the Rangers continue to rebuild. Forward Cody McLeod was traded Wednesday to Nashville for a 2020 seventh-round pick, and the Rangers figure to make several more moves before the Feb. 25 deadline.
“It’s a business, so anything can happen,’’ Namestnikov said. “I don’t think it’s in anyone’s control, so you just have to come to the rink every day and just prepare for games.’’