In preparation for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, I have been profiling players who may be available when the Red Wings make their first selection at 24th overall. I’ve hit most of the nationalities that make up the Red Wings roster so far, including a Canadian, a Swede, and a Finn. The other day, I profiled Tomas Jurco, and while there are no current Red Wings from Slovakia, his hometown is just a four hour drive from that of prospect Tomas Tatar.
While there is currently only one Russian on the Red Wings, and none necessarily coming up the pipeline, the past and present of the Wings franchise has been shaped by enormous contributions from players who hail from the former Soviet Union. From Pavel Datsyuk now, to the famous Russian 5 of the mid-ninties, they all have a connection to this next player.
Vladislav Namestnikov could have done things the easy way. He was steadily climbing up the levels of Russian professional hockey, playing Tier 3 as a 16 year old, and then moving up to Tier 2 as an 17 year old for his hometown team of Voskresensk. He likely would have made the jump to the highest level of hockey in Russia, the Kontinental Hockey League, sooner than later. In fact, just over a week ago, he was taken 11th overall in the first round of the KHL Junior Draft, by Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod.
But Namestnikov had a goal. He wanted to play in the National Hockey League, and he decided that the best way to achieve that goal was to leave home as a 17 year old kid to join the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. After a fantastic rookie season that saw him put up 68 points in 68 games, plus another 5 in 6 playoff games, Namestnikov appears to have chosen wisely.
He is the 11th ranked North American skater – players are dubbed North American or European depending on where they play their junior hockey, not their nationality – which means he will likely go somewhere in the second half of the first round, potentially at #24 to the Detroit Red Wings.
That would be an excellent selection for both parties, as far as I’m concerned. The Wings, for their part, would be acquiring a highly skilled player who is proficient at both ends of the ice, and who is going to continue to develop under the tutelage of one of the best junior hockey programs around, the London Knights, which are headed up by the Hunter brothers. Dale and Mark Hunter demand that their players put forth the effort, and any prospect would be in great hands with them.
As for Namestnikov, he would be joining the organization that is home to his hockey idol, Pavel Datsyuk. That would be a dream come true for any player, let alone one who is so very far from home.
For a guy who just wrapped up his first season in North America, and who had basically no knowledge of the OHL before joining London, he sure has adapted well. Listening to him speak, you would swear he’s been living in Canada for years. Unlike most European import players in the CHL, he has a very firm grasp of the English language, which I’m certain is something that has made the transition easier. It’s tough enough growing up away from your family and friends in a foreign land, but to do so in a place where nearly no one speaks your language is an added complication.
In a sense though, this isn’t Namestnikov’s first taste of North American life. His father, Evgeny Namestnikov, was drafted 117th overall, in the 6th round of the 1991 NHL Entry Draft, by the Vancouver Canucks. While Evgeny never was able to crack an every day NHL lineup in a career that spanned ten years and three NHL organizations, he made an impact when he did play. Despite being undersized, he was a fearsome hitter on the blue line.
His father isn’t the only Russian NHLer he has close ties to, either. His uncle is Slava Kozlov, who Wings fans will remember was a key component to the 1997 and 1998 Stanley Cup teams.
Kozlov was a member of the famous Russian 5, a unit put together by then head coach Scotty Bowman, that would put on a puck control clinic. It’s a group whose importance to the success of those Cup winning teams should not be over looked. In fact, their puck possession style can still be seen in the current incarnation of the Red Wings.
A young Namestnikov had the opportunity to meet the members of these Cup winning teams back in the late ninties, thanks to his uncle Slava.
Despite the familial connection between Namestnikov and Kozlov, it was another member of the Russian 5 whose style of play Namestnikov would most resemble.
Igor Larionov, who along with Slava Fetisov helped to break down the barrier preventing players from the Soviet Union joining the NHL, was nicknamed ‘the Professor’, in equal parts for his appearance, his intelligence, and the precise way he would distribute the puck. He was also a talented scorer, racking up nearly 400 goals in a career split between the Soviet Union and the NHL, over the span of four decades.
Namestnikov’s proficiency at setting up his teammates, as well as being able to finish off his own opportunities, is already drawing comparisons to Larionov. Considering the fact that the Professor is widely considered one of the best passers of all time, that is pretty high praise. Namestnikov is also one of the best skaters in the draft, in terms of pure speed.
Larionov broke into the NHL with the Vancouver Canucks after 12 professional seasons in Russia, and in his first year in North America he played on a line with, and served as a mentor to a young player named Pavel Bure. Bure was in his first season in the NHL as well, and would capture the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie after potting 34 goals and 60 points in 65 games.
Eventually, Larionov and Bure would go their separate ways with their NHL careers. Larionov wound up in Detroit, where he would win three Stanley Cups from 1997-2002. He would play one more season with the Red Wings, before joining the New Jersey Devils for his last year in the NHL, at age 44.
In his last two seasons wearing the winged wheel, however, Larionov would serve as a mentor and father figure to another young Russian Pavel. Larionov helped mold this Pavel into the player he is today, a three time All Star, a two time Cup winner, a four time winner of the Lady Byng trophy, and the three-years-reigning winner of the Selke trophy.
I’m talking, of course, about Pavel Datsyuk, Vladislav Namestnikov’s hockey idol.
It really is a small world. The distance between Voskressenk, Russia, the hometown of Igor Larionov, Slava Kozlov and Vladislav Namestnikov, and Detroit, Michigan, spans almost the length of the globe.
In reality, there are less than 6 degrees of separation between the two.