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Bolts prospect Namestnikov opening eyes with his game.
4 2014 . By Erik Erlendsson. The Tampa Tirbune

TAMPA To see how the Lightning prospect development plan pays dividends, look no further than 2011 first-round pick Vladislav Namestnikov.

The 27th overall selection that year, Namestnikov was not rushed in any way, shape or form by the Lightning.

Now, as he enters his third professional season, the 6-foot, 184-pound center is knocking on the door for a regular roster spot with Tampa Bay. He is enjoying a strong training camp heading into tonights preseason finale at home against Florida, with a league-leading seven assists.

Guys develop at different rates, and I think hes right on course, Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. We knew he was going to get (to the NHL), but hes really opened some eyes in the first four preseason games.

With final rosters due to the league by 5 p.m. Tuesday, decision time is looming, and Namestnikov has done more than enough to make it difficult on the Lightning management and coaching staff.

I try not to think about it, Namestnikov said following Thursdays two-assist game against Florida. Im just trying to take it game by game, day by day and trying to work hard. Its up to the coach to decide whether I stay or get sent down. Hopefully, I can make it.

With seven assists in four preseason games, Namestnikov was one point behind Philadelphias Mark Streit for the league lead heading into Friday. But its more than the points piling up that have caught the attention of the coaching staff this year.

Just watching him on the power play and battling for pucks in the corners, hes a different guy than he was last year, assistant coach Steve Thomas said. Last year, he was getting knocked off the puck quite easily, and this year hes not. Thats a tribute to a real strong summer of training that was hockey specific, and hes done a good job.

Namestnikov was drafted for his hockey sense, skills and speed. What he needed and it was clear from his first training camp in 2011 was time to hone those skills and add muscle to his frame. While a separated shoulder in 2012-13 and a broken hand last season set him back, he dedicated himself this past offseason to adding strength, particularly to his core muscles.

I had a long, productive summer, mostly in the gym, Namestnikov said. I feel it on the ice, and off the ice, too, so hopefully I can keep it going.

Whether Namestnikov makes the opening-night roster is still to be decided. But after appearing in four games with the Lightning last season, and not looking out of place, its only a matter of time before he stops knocking on the door and instead barges through.

As the preseason has gone on, the competition has become tougher and tougher, and he hasnt blinked yet, Cooper said. Hes upped his game since his call-up last year, and thats what you want to see. You want to see guys have good summers, and Vladdy has clearly had a good summer.

Namestnikov is starting to develop into an NHL-caliber player.

Vladdy has the hockey sense, he has the vision and hes got the hands, but this is a big mans league, and you need to be able to take the pounding, Cooper said. And you can tell in his core and his legs how much stronger of a base he has, and its really served him well.

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