VANCOUVER — Vladislav Namestnikov did his best to keep a straight face when he did his first interview as a Ranger Wednesday, before the Rangers kicked off their Western Canada trip at Rogers Arena against the Vancouver Canucks.
“It’s a great organization, with so much history,’’ he said of the Rangers. “It’s a good feeling.’’
Namestnikov was acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning at the NHL trade deadline on Monday in the deal for Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller. Namestnikov, who was having a career year with the first place-overall Lightning, was traded along with 20-year-old defenseman Libor Hajek, 19-year-old forward Brett Howden, a first-round pick in this summer’s draft, and a conditional first-round pick in 2019. Both players are still playing junior hockey in the WHL.
Namestnikov, 25, who had career highs in goals (20), assists (24), points (44) and average ice time (17:30) in 62 games for the Lightning, said he had just woken up from a pre-game nap Monday when he got called by both Tampa GM Steve Yzerman and Rangers GM Jeff Gorton to give him the news he’d been traded. He said there had been whispers beforehand that he may be traded, and he insisted he wasn’t shocked to be dealt at the deadline.
“I mean, it’s part of the business and everyone can get traded, so I wasn’t really that shocked,’’ he said. “But this is the first time I’ve been traded, so it’s kind of a weird feeling.
“But as I said, I’m excited and I’m ready to get things going here.’’
Namestnikov got things going right away on his second shift as a Ranger when he picked up an assist on the team’s second goal of the first period Wednesday. The Rangers took an early 2-0 lead over the Canucks. They led 3-2 after one.
Namestnikov wasn’t done. He scored his first goal as a Ranger — unassisted — late in the second period to give the Rangers a 4-3 lead. He stole the puck near his own blue line and beat Anders Nilsson on a breakaway.
Coach Alain Vigneault’s plan Wednesday was to play Namestnikov in the spot vacated by Miller, centering a line between left wing Jimmy Vesey and right wing Mats Zuccarello. Vigneault said he liked the way the other lines have been playing together, so he opted to keep those groups intact. Plus, his reports said Namestnikov had played mostly center with Tampa Bay and had been most effective at that position. The Russia native arrived in Vancouver late Tuesday and the team did not have a morning skate Wednesday, so the first time he got a chance to skate with his new teammates would be the warmups before the game.
“We haven’t had time to sit down with him and go through every little thing here,’’ Vigneault said.
Vigneault said for now, he intended to keep another of the new Rangers, Ryan Spooner, on the left wing, where he played in his Rangers debut Sunday after coming from Boston that day in the Rick Nash trade. Spooner, like Namestnikov, can play either center or wing.
“For any player, being able to play more than one position is a bonus, being versatile,’’ Vigneault said. “Both new acquisitions have got that capability, which is a big plus.’’
Namestnikov was asked how he felt about leaving Tampa Bay, which owns the best record in the league (43-17-4, 90 points). The Rangers entered Wednesday in last place in the Metropolitan Division at 27-30-6 (60 points), nine points out of a playoff spot. They are in full rebuild mode.
“I mean, like I said, it’s something that could happen to anyone, and obviously, it’s tough,’’ he said. “But I think there’s a bright future here with the Rangers and what they’re trying to accomplish. Building a young team is something I’m excited to be a part of.’’