Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Farewell Vladdy

Every now and then, the business side of sports rears its ugly head and leaves you with a glum feeling about a move your team just made. Even though you know it made the right decision and probably improved itself with the move.

For many Tampa Bay Lightning fans, yesterday was one of those days. Vladislav Yevgenievich Namestnikov -- known to most Bolts fans simply as "Vladdy" -- is was one of the Bolts' most liked players and is was having a career year for them before they dealt him to the Rangers at the trade deadline.

You can tell from his name that he's Russian, but his biography is atypical for a Russian hockey player. Born 55 miles from Moscow less than a year after the Soviet Union collapsed, Namestnikov was just eight months old when his family moved across the Atlantic so his father Evgeny could take a crack at the NHL. Evgeny was a defenseman who had been drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in 1991 and was called up for the 1993-94 season (and who, in an unrelated side note, is ten friggin' months younger than me, but I digress).

Evgeny Namestnikov never stuck in the NHL, getting demoted to the AHL's Syracuse Crunch after a dozen or so games with the big club. When all was said and done he played in only 27 NHL games despite having contracts with three NHL franchises (Canucks, Islanders, and Predators) from 1993 to 2000. But he remained on this continent through that span, making a mark in the AHL and especially for the Crunch, for whom he played in 173 contests from 1994 to 1997. Also, much of the family settled in Michigan, in no small part because Evgeny's brother-in-law (Vladdy's uncle) is the gritty winger Slava Kozlov, who played 18 years in the NHL and won two Stanley Cups with the Red Wings.

All of which means that Vladdy spent a good chunk of his early years not in Russia but in these United States. That goes a long way toward explaining why the erstwhile Bolt speaks English with no accent whatsoever and is extremely comfortable in Western Civ skin.

The Lightning signed Vladislav Namestnikov to an entry level contract in March 2012. Six months later they assigned him to the same Syracuse Crunch for whom his father had starred years before. After a limited four-game stint with the Lightning in 2013-14, Namestnikov became a notable presence when he played 43 games and recorded 16 points in 2014-15. Then he planted his stake in the ground with an 80-game, 35-point campaign in 2015-16.

When yesterday rolled around he had racked up 44 points in 62 games so far this season, while playing an integral role on what is was the best line in hockey between himself, Steven Stamkos, and Nikita Kucherov.

And in reality, those point totals understate his true value because Namestnikov excels at something which has a major impact on a game but does not get reported on box score stats: stickhandling the puck on exits from the defensive zone and entries into the offensive zone. The ability to do that tilts the ice in your team's direction; swings possession time in your team's favor; establishes momentum; generates scoring chances for your team; and keeps the opponent from being able to take good shots. When your team scores after you control the exit and entry and enable it to set up in the offensive end, you are largely responsible for the goal even if you are not the one who scores it or gets credited with an assist. And going back to 2015, Namestnikov is one of the league's best at this aspect of the game.

But the thing that stands out most about Namestnikov is the person, not the stats, for he is unfailingly polite and humble despite thriving in the ego-driven Type-A world that is professional sports. If your daughter has to date somebody, he is the kind of male you want her to date, and I say this as the father of a 13-year-old girl who is racing toward adulthood so fast I can't stand it. The dude is so serenely comfortable that he actually wore a Justin Bieber T-shirt in public in 2016 (at a Justin Bieber concert, no less).

Namestnikov is listed at 5'11" and 180 pounds, measurements which are unimpressive for a professional athlete. And having walked right by him in a hallway at Amalie Arena a few months ago, while he was wearing street clothes, I can tell you that those measurements grant him a very significant benefit of the doubt. But that slight build does not dissuade him from going into the tough and dirty areas of the ice, nor do they stop him from mixing it up and hitting opponents who deserve it.

His game is built largely on speed and skill, but he beefs it up with physicality when needed and he does whatever it takes to win. Think of him as the George Harrison to Stamkos's Paul McCartney and Kurcherov's John Lennon, or as the quietly effective Art Monk to the rooster-strutting John Riggins and headline-happy Joe Theisman. Without Namestnikov as an ingredient, the hockey drink is simply not the same.

Yesterday's trade was, or at least appears to be, a virtuoso deal in a hockey sense, one that increases the Lightning's chances of winning la Coupe Stanley. As good as Namestnikov is, entering yesterday the team was loaded with offensive talent yet suffering from defensive woes, and in exchange for him they received one of the NHL's best "defensive defensemen" in Ryan McDonagh and they also received the Rangers' second-highest scoring forward in J.T. Miller.

I love what the trade says about my team's desire to not only dream big, but to act big in order to achieve those dreams. I love what it says about my team's dedication to winning it all, and its refusal to stand pat when the grail is realistically attainable.

But there is a human part of me that recoils somewhat from this trade. If the Lightning wind up winning the Cup -- something that is still a very big if -- it will feel wrong when Vladdy's name does not get etched onto its pedestal alongside the rest of the Lightning players with whom he has gone to war these several years, and with whom he achieved so much for the first 75 percent of this season. His contribution to the championship will have been real, and important, and this season would not have been as great as it has been without all the effort and production he has given.

We wish you well Vladdy, and will always consider you to be one of our own, a Bolt forever.

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