After only a handful of games, Jon Cooper saw the signs of what was to come from Vladislav Namestnikov .
The Syracuse Crunch head coach watched the same progression in many of the rookies on the Calder Cup-winning Norfolk Admirals last year, whether they were Tampa Bay Lightning picks like Ondrej Palat  and Richard Panik , or undrafted free agents like Tyler Johnson  and Cory Conacher .
“Those guys that came in, felt out the league, learned it and after Christmas, took off,” Cooper said. “That’s where Vladdy would have been this year, but we’re just going to have to wait a few months for that to happen.”
Namestnikov, who registered a pair of assists over his first five games for the Crunch, has been sidelined since late October with a shoulder injury. Initially expected to miss four-to-six weeks, there is still no definite timetable for his return.
“It happens. It’s hockey, there’s nothing you can do about it,” Namestnikov said. “You just have to stay positive, go through rehab, and hopefully be back soon.”
In a sling and unable to move his arm for the first four weeks, Namestnikov spent most of his time off the ice, whether it was riding the bike, working out on the elliptical, or swimming.
“I joked with Vladdy that he’s going to have the biggest legs in the league by the time he comes back, because that’s all the poor kid could do,” Cooper said.
Now cleared for skating, the 20-year-old is getting closer to returning from the most severe injury of his career.
“He’s champing at the bit to get back,” Cooper said. “We’re a better team when Vladdy is in the lineup.”
Cooper lauded Namestnikov for his hockey sense and his willingness to learn, but is most impressed with the 6-foot Russian’s power play prowess.
“He has a knack for getting it in the zone and calming everything down,” Cooper said. “That’s an unreal trait to have at 20 years-old.”
It should be no surprise. Namestnikov grew up around professional hockey.
His father, John, played more than seven years in North America, including parts of three seasons in Syracuse. It’s the first of many instances that show how small the professional hockey world can be.
One of Namestnikov’s uncles, Vyacheslav Kozlov, played most of the 1990’s with the Detroit Red Wings. Living in Michigan during that time, Namestnikov fondly remembers his uncle bringing him around the arena.
“He used to take me into the lockerroom, so I got to meet guys like Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan,” Namestnikov said. “It was amazing. I saw what it was to be a hockey player, and that’s when I wanted to be one."
Now the Lightning’s general manager, Yzerman took Namestnikov with the 27th overall pick in the 2011 draft. Besides his pedigree, Tampa Bay selected him for his ability to be a goal-scorer, yet still be responsible defensively.
Namestnikov averaged a point per game in his first season with the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League and helped lead the team to the Memorial Cup finals in his second season, scoring 71 points in 63 regular season games and 18 points in 19 playoff contests.
“It was a great experience to just go there,” he said. “I’m thankful for everything.”
Namestnikov, while rehabbing to rejoin the Crunch, has seen the team take off into first place in the Eastern Conference, with many of the players looking for their second-straight Calder Cup.
“It’s always tough when you’re injured,” he said. “But I’m happy for the team. They’re winning and hopefully I’ll be back soon and I can join them.”