Touted as one of the most offensively gifted prospects to come out of the 2020 OHL Priority Selection, third overall pick Max Namestnikov can’t wait to hit the ice with the Sarnia Sting for the first time.
When he does, he’ll be sporting 81 on the back of his black and gold jersey; reminiscent of his brother, Vladislav, who donned 18 with the London Knights this time 10 years ago.
If you ask the former Detroit Honeybaked standout to describe his game, he’s unsure if he should refer to himself as a two-way forward, but he’ll tell you how much he loves playing in the defensive zone.
“I think defence comes before offence,” said the nearly 17-year-old of his style of play. “I help my D out, do all that work in the D zone, and then go score some goals.”
In terms of what he brings to a young Sarnia squad, the Michigan native points to his skating and speed as his standout attributes.
“Personally, I love my skating, my speed. My skating stands out to me the most,” he continued. “Using my speed to get around defencemen or forwards is important.”
After all, speed is a big part of what attracted him to the OHL route in the first place; speed, good coaches, and that family connection.
“The speed, the skill level, there are a lot of good players in the OHL with high IQ, and a good coaching staff. Something that will prepare me for the future,” explained Namestnikov.
“I had a couple options. I had the plan to go to college. Both routes were very good but I had family members who went through the Sarnia organization and my brother, who played in London.”
Having been enthralled in the hockey world since the very beginning – he says he was probably no older than three-years-old the first time he put on skates – some of his earliest hockey memories include making the two or three hour trip from his home in Michigan with his family to attend Vladdy’s games.
“I remember going to a couple of his games with this big blow horn. I remember it was green and I always used to blow that at his games. I always remember that, sitting with my mom…I was very little at the time, so you can imagine a mini Max at the rink,” he remembered with a laugh. “I also remember going down to the locker room and meeting all the players and my brother giving me a tour of the room. It was special.”
Now a member of the Detroit Red Wings and well underway in his tenth full NHL season, those early memories in London with his kid brother in the crowd are just as special to Vlad.
“Every home game, my parents and my brother got to watch me play and hopefully Max learned something from that. I think that’s a big thing for him,” the Red Wings forward recalls of his two-year OHL stint in London.
Ever since, Vlad’s influence on Max has spanned way beyond his jersey number. In fact, one of the biggest ways in which the OHL helped shape Vladdy’s game is something he now has in common with Max: attention to the defensive zone.
“The Hunters taught me the defensive side of the game and they told me defence is just as important as offence,” said Vladdy, thinking back to his two years in London from 2010-12. “I took that advice throughout my career and learned the importance of that other side of the game.”
The hockey bloodline runs deep for the two brothers. Their father, Evgeniy, played parts of five NHL seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, New York Islanders and Nashville Predators. Uncle Ivan Novoseltsev spent a pair of seasons with the Sting before embarking on his own NHL career with the Florida Panthers and Phoenix Coyotes while uncle Slava Kozlov helped the Detroit Red Wings to a pair of Stanley Cups over his decorated 18-season career.
“[Max] grew up watching me and I grew up watching my dad. He would come to all my London Knights games and get to see how it is. Now that I’m in Detroit, he gets to come to all my home games and see what it takes to be in the NHL,” Vladdy continued.
“I try to help him as much as possible. If he wants some advice I’m more than happy to help. I can’t really watch a lot of his games because I have my own season going on, but now that he’s in Sarnia, hopefully if I get a day off I can go watch him play.”
The biggest piece of advice Namestnikov has gotten from his older brother? Keep your head up: the same advice Vladdy gleaned from his father.
But there’s other significant advice he’s happily passed on to his baby brother.
“The biggest piece of advice I can give him is to just be yourself. He’s his own player, he knows how to play the game, and just have fun with it. Hockey’s a fun game, you just have to go out there and be yourself and play.”
With no date yet determined for the start of the 2020-21 OHL season, Namestnikov has been using the extended offseason to his advantage. He’s been performing every day at the gym, building up muscle mass. He’s been skating regularly and working on getting quicker. When time allows, he’s also been playing pond hockey with neighbours and family.
He has yet to meet his new teammates in person due to provincial COVID-19 regulations, but he keeps in touch regular via social media and regular team Zoom calls. He’s developed a particular close friendship with Sting netminder Ben Gaudreau, who he says made him feel welcome from the start.
When the puck finally drops on the season, Namestnikov is confident he’ll be able to make an immediate impact and has confidence in the team GM Dylan Seca and head coach David Legwand have built out.
“I think we have a very talented young team right now, and I think the most important thing is everyone should come in with confidence,” he said. “As long as we all have confidence, I think we have the talent and the speed to perform well.”
Upon being drafted third overall by the Sting back in April, Namestnikov mentioned Sarnia had been a top choice for him all along with nods to the organization’s renowned development program and wealth of past NHL talent that includes Legwand, owner Derian Hatcher and associate coach Brad Staubitz.
“A lot of very good players went through that organization and that’s one of the reasons I’m going to play there myself. Getting coached by David Legwand and Hatcher and so many more is just going to be an honour and hopefully they’ll make me a better player for the future,” he continued.
Learning from and looking up to guys with NHL experience is what he’s used to, after all. If you ask the up-and-coming Sting forward which NHL player he looks up to most, he won’t hesitate to point out the one who’s inspired him the most since, quite literally, day one.
“I’ve always looked up to my brother,” he said. “There are a lot of NHL players I watch, but I’m going to say my brother because I watch him the most and study his game.”
But while their numbers and outlook on the game may be similar, Vlad sees a very different player in his little brother: one with a lot of potential to go far.
“We’re a little bit different and that’s perfectly fine. I want him to be his own person with his own type of game,” he said. “He’s stockier and good on draws and I think he’ll translate to the OHL and be a good player there. As long as he keeps working hard and sticking with it, hopefully everything turns out great.”