There are some people out there who will claim not to be surprised by seeing Tyler Bertuzzi rank first among the Detroit Red Wings in terms of goals scored (he currently has nine.) However, if any of you out there claim to not be surprised by who sits in second on that same list with seven goals, let’s just say that I’ll be a bit skeptical.
With seven goals through the first 16 games of the season, Vladislav Namestnikov is just one goal away from the total he put up through 53 games last season. What’s even more impressive is that of those eight goals he scored last season, five of them were empty-netters; only one of his seven goals this season have come from the same scenario. While we’re still in the first quarter of the 2021-22 season, it’s safe to say that his production this season is more along the lines of what fans and Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman were envisioning when Namestnikov joined the Red Wings during the 2020 free agency period.
And now the question seems to be whether or not this is for real or not. Countless players across the NHL start off on uncharacteristic hot streaks just to come crashing down to earth over the course of the season. Is that the case here? Let’s see what the numbers say….
Namestnikov’s Rates are Through the Roof
“Last year was a weird year for me, the pandemic, a lot of posts, sometimes that happens,” Namestnikov told MLive earlier this week. “This year I had a good summer, I worked hard, it’s paying off right now.” Considering a “good summer” is repeated ad nauseum from athletes across almost every sport to explain how they’ve improved, one has to wonder if there’s more to the story than simply having a productive summer.
The first thing that’s worth noting is that Namestnikov has seven goals on just 24 shots – a staggering shot-percentage (S%) of 29.2%. Last season, his S% sat a lowly 9.2%; for reference, his career S% is 13.4%. Though it’s still early, by tripling his S% from last year, we’re experiencing something of an illusion.
To provide further context here, it’s worth noting how many shots he took last year versus how many he’s taken this season. Last season, Namestnikov fired 87 shots through 53 games, a rate of 1.64 shots per-game. This season, he has fired 24 shots through 16 games, a rate of 1.5 per-game. So what we have here is a player that is shooting slightly less than he did last season, but is converting on way more of the shots he is taking. Even the best of the best shooters in the league cannot maintain the kind of S% that he holds right now; Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals is arguably the greatest goal scorer to ever play the game, and he has a career S% of 12.8%. Simply put: expect Namestnikov to experience to some offensive regression as his S% returns to normal.
But none of that is to take away from the work that Namestnikov undoubtedly put in over the summer. Like he said, last season was a weird one in many different ways, so having a somewhat normal offseason to train and work alongside his teammates probably helped him not only get into a groove that he is more accustomed to, but it also probably helped him feel like a Red Wing in a way that last season’s restrictions did not fully permit.
Now in his second season with the Red Wings, Namestnikov finds himself in a different role this season than he had last year. Last season, he was used primarily in a middle-six, offensive role, sometimes lining up down the middle as Detroit’s second line center. This season, he has spent all 16 games in a bottom-six, defensive role, spending time alongside Michael Rasmussen, Sam Gagner and Adam Erne.
According to Natural Stat Trick, Namestnikov has started just a bit over 60% of his shifts in the defensive zone this season. Last season, that he started just 52.7% of his shifts in the defensive zone – a number that likely rose over the latter half of the season as Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill figured out how strong Namestnikov’s defensive game is. That he’s producing the way he is right now while also playing in a defensive-specific role is another sign that suggests that regression is coming.
Lastly, with nine points through 16 games, Namestnikov has a points per-game (P/G) rate of .56, which would stand as the Russian forward’s second best scoring rate of his career (his career-best rate of .59 came during the 2017-18 season where he split time between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Rangers.) While it’s not crazy to suggest that he can maintain this scoring pace over the course of this season – he’s bound to collect more than the two assists he currently has this season – the fact that he is relied upon to prevent goals more so than to score goals this season suggests, once again, not to get too carried away.
Regardless, the strong start to Namestnikov’s season is encouraging for a number of different reasons. This is a soon-to-be 29-year-old on the final year of a two-year contract. It’s a cliché to bring it up, but there’s always that added motivation when a player is in a contract year. Whether it’s with the Red Wings or another team, he is on a mission this season to ensure another contract is coming his way in the summer of next year.
An added wrinkle to this is that the Red Wings are poised to be active as this season’s trade deadline approaches. Not only are they still in a position to send out players on expiring contracts in exchange for future assets, but they also have a noteworthy forward currently projected to return to the lineup around March: Jakub Vrana. Once the Czech winger returns from rehab following a surgery on his shoulder, the Red Wings will have to make room in their lineup somehow.
Assuming Namestnikov can continue to be as productive in both ends of the ice as he is right now (even with a bit of regression taking place), this would present a sell-high opportunity. Ahead of the 2020 trade deadline, the Colorado Avalanche acquired his services from the Ottawa Senators for a 2021 fourth round pick. At the time of the trade, he had 13 goals and 25 points through 56 games. This more than likely sets the bar for what the Red Wings can expect in return for the forward if they opt to move him, with the potential for that pick to become a third rounder if he can continue on this torrid scoring pace.
Unless Yzerman is keen on retaining Namestnikov’s services via an extension to his contract, or there simply is not a ton of interest in him from the league’s “buyers” at the deadline, Namestnikov will more than likely finish this season in a different jersey. He will need to continue to build on his strong two-way play, but there is an opportunity here for the Red Wings to cash in. It’s not a bad thing to get good future value for a player that was essentially signed just to boost the team’s forward depth while their younger players continue to develop. Furthermore, even if he is traded, the door may remain open for him to find his way back to “Hockeytown”, especially given how well he has performed in the team’s bottom-six.
Namestnikov Provides Solid Depth
None of this is to downplay what Namestnikov is doing to start this season. After a forgettable first season with the Red Wings, he is undoubtedly turning a lot of heads by making offensive plays that we simply didn’t see out of him last season:
In a lot of ways, his early play is reminiscent of Erne, who led the Red Wings in goals last season after his own forgettable first season in Detroit. In Erne’s case, it earned the 26-year-old a new deal with the Red Wings. In Namestnikov’s, well, we’ll have to wait and see. Make no mistake though: a big reason why the Red Wings are off to a solid start this season is because they are getting production from up and down their lineup, and Namestnikov’s strong start is a big part of that.
Other teams will surely take note.
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I am a Western Michigan University alum whose passion for hockey knows no limits. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Catch me and my fellow Red Wings writers’ YouTube show “The Hockey Writers Grind Line” which drops every Saturday.