The Tampa Bay Lightning made some bold picks in the 2011 NHL Draft, selecting a trio of Russians with the first three of its six picks. Russian players have been selected more frequently in recent years, but 2011 wasn’t a banner year for the country as teams were reluctant to select its young players without assurances; only nine Russians were picked in the seven-round draft.
It was a gamble on the part of Steve Yzerman, the team’s second-year general manager, but one that paid off considerably. All three players are now part of the core which led the Lightning to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals and a Stanley Cup Final in 2014-15. Yzerman continued his affinity for Russians in the 2012 draft with the first-round selection of Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The Lightning made just six picks in the draft after trading its second and third round selections in different deals for veterans Eric Brewer and Simon Gagne. An additional seventh round pick was acquired from the Phoenix Coyotes in exchange for forward Marc-Antoine Pouliot.
The first Russian to be selected in the draft, Vladislav Namestnikov moved to North America prior to the 2010-11 season to play for the OHL’s London Knights as a 17 year old. He led the team in scoring that season with 30 goals in 68 games and was ranked 11th among North American skaters by Central Scouting. Though taking a Russian might have been thought a risk by other general managers, Yzerman had personal ties to the skilled center – Namestnikov is the nephew of Yzerman’s former teammate, Slava Kozlov.
A late-92 birthday, the Russian returned to London for his final season of junior in 2011-12, where his playmaking became more pronounced on a team with more offensive options. He formed a formidable duo with Boston Bruins draft pick Seth Griffith and finished with a team-high 49 assists. He had four goals and 14 assists in 19 playoff games.
Namestnikov played parts of the next three seasons in the AHL with the Syracuse Crunch before finally earning a permanent role with the Lightning midway through the 2014-15 season. After a 21-point rookie season in the AHL, he became the Crunch’s go-to offensive option in 2013-14 and was a point-per-game player in 34 games with the team before getting the call-up in 2014-15.
Though his playing time decreased during Tampa’s playoff run this year, Namestnikov is a valued part of the team’s core going forward and should play a second- or third-line role.
Namestnikov was an easy risk to take, so to speak, but Nikita Kucherov was a bit of a surprise. Unlike Namestnikov, he was still playing in Russia and had played primarily for CSKA Moscow’s junior team, though he did lead the U18 World Championship in scoring that year with an incredible 21 points in seven games.
The following year, while still playing in Russia, Kucherov had seven points in seven games at the World Junior Championship. While he continued to score at a torrid pace at the junior level, he only had five points in 18 games in the KHL. Somewhat surprisingly, he was selected by the Quebec Remparts in the 2012 CHL Import Draft and arrived for training camp the following season. His skill was on full display in the QMJHL; after just six games with Quebec, Kucherov was dealt to the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, where he had 26 goals and 27 assists in 27 regular season games, as well as 24 points in 14 playoff games.
Tampa had plans to be patient with Kucherov, hoping to give him at least a full season with Syracuse of the AHL, but those plans soon changed as he posted 24 points through his first 17 AHL games. Naturally, his production slowed at the NHL level, but he found his comfort level in 2014-15 and has since become a star and arguably the team’s most dangerous forward. In the past two seasons, Kucherov has a combined 130 points in the regular season and 41 in the playoffs.
Nikita Nesterov, D, Cherepovets Jr. (Russia), 5th round, 148th overall
Status: NHL Player
NHL Games: 84
Nikita Nesterov was ranked 32nd among European skaters by NHL Central Scouting leading up to the draft. He played in the MHL, Russia’s junior league, that season and recorded 19 points in 43 games while accumulating 72 penalty minutes. He spent the next two seasons in Russia, playing 45 games for Chelyabinsk Traktor in the KHL, recording two assists with limited ice time.
The 5’11”, 191-pound defenseman was signed by the Lightning at the end of the 2013 season and spent the entire 2013-14 campaign with Syracuse in the AHL, where he played more minutes than in Russia and was given much more responsibility. His combination of speed and physicality made an impression on the Lightning the following season as he spent 27 games with the big club, scoring three goals and adding four assists. He also appeared in 17 playoff games during the Lightning’s run to the Stanley Cup.
Nesterov played 10 games in the AHL this past season, but spent the majority of the year in Tampa, recording nine points in 57 games. His spot on the blue line isn’t completely secure, but he has earned the trust of Head Coach Jon Cooper and his staff. He does need to be re-signed, however.
After ending in 2010 a string of eight straight drafts where they chose a goaltender, the Lightning selected Minnesota native Adam Wilcox with their sixth round pick in 2011. The goaltender was traded from Green Bay to Tri-City during the 2010-11 season and posted respectable numbers for both teams.
As a freshman for the University of Minnesota in 2012-13, Wilcox posted an incredible 25-8-5 record to go along with a 1.88 goals-against average (a school record) and a .921 save percentage. He was just as good the next season; named a finalist for the Mike Richter and Hobey Baker awards, Wilcox sported a 26-6-6 record, a 1.97 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage. His numbers dipped slightly in 2014-15, but his three-year collegiate career gave the Lightning more than enough reason to offer Wilcox a two-year contract.
Wilcox backed up Kristers Gudlevskis in Syracuse this season. He struggled as a pro, however, posting a 9-12-6 record as well as a 3.34 goals-against average and a .891 save percentage.
Matthew Peca, C, Pembroke Lumber Kings (CCHL), 7th round, 201st overall
NHL Games: 0
Matthew Peca finished second on his Junior A team in scoring in 2010-11, which is no small feat for a 17 year old, but his size, or lack thereof, was a question heading into the 2011 draft.
The Petawawa, Ont. native proved himself a consistent scorer through four years of collegiate hockey, however; Peca played 117 games for Qunnipiac University and topped 30-plus points each year, recording a combined 104 points. He was signed to a two-year deal at the end of the 2014-15 season.
Lauded for his playmaking abilities, the diminutive Peca finished third on the Crunch in assists (35) in 2015-16 and fifth on the team in points (43). He will return to the team next season as a top-six center garnering first-unit power-play minutes and could see time in Tampa if injuries occur.
Ondrej Palat, LW, Drummondville Voltiguers (QMJHL), 7th round, 208th overall
Status: NHL Player
NHL Games: 232
Few people – if any – would have predicted Czech winger Ondrej Palat to have played the most games in Tampa Bay out of its six draft picks in 2011, but that is exactly what has happened. He went undrafted in his first two years of eligibility but broke out offensively with a 96-point campaign in 2010-11 playing alongside Sean Couturier (PHI).
Rather than returning to junior for his overage year, Palat was signed by the Lightning and spent the 2011-12 season playing for their AHL affiliate in Norfolk. He managed 30 points in 61 games as an AHL rookie. The following season, Palat showed confidence and a willingness to exert himself physically, leading to a 52-point regular season. He then led the Syracuse Crunch in playoff scoring with 26 points in 18 games as the team played in the Calder Cup Final.
Palat’s performance in the playoffs, combined with a good training camp in 2013-14, was enough to earn him a permanent spot in Tampa. And he responded accordingly; in the past three seasons Palat has been a top-six winger for the Lightning, recording a combined 162 points and factoring in heavily in the team’s recent playoff runs.
Hockey’s Future looks back at the 2011 NHL Draft of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the video below, including 2011 NHL Combine footage of top pick Vladislav Namestnikov.
Notable Playoff Performances
Nikita Gusev was one of the top forwards in the KHL this season and that continued into the playoffs as the 23 year old had 14 points in 15 playoff games for St. Petersburg SKA.
Since the Shawinigan Cataractes traded for Dmytro Timashov (TOR), Dennis Yan‘s production tapered off, but the American was still a productive point-getter for the Cataractes as they advanced to the QMJHL Finals. Yan had 10 goals and five assists in 20 playoff games.
Prospect of the Month
Though a prospect by Hockey’s Future definition, make no mistake – Andrei Vasilevskiy is a big-league goaltender. The 6’3″ Russian netminder kept the Lightning afloat in the Eastern Conference Final when Ben Bishop went down to injury. In the Pittsburgh Penguins Game 7 win, Vasilevskiy was one of the Lightning’s best players, keeping an otherwise uneven game close on the scoreboard. In eight playoff appearances, Vasilevskiy posted a 2.76 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage. With Bishop’s contract expiring at the end of the 2016-17, the Lightning will have some tough decisions to make.
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