Toronto Maple Leafs fans got some very encouraging news yesterday when it was reported that injured defenceman Nikita Zaitsev returned to practice for the first time in six weeks.
The Leafs’ workhorse blue liner suffered a broken foot on December 15th in a game against the Detroit Red Wings and has been on the shelf ever since. With Zaitsev out of the lineup the Leafs have an 8-5-4 record this season, not exactly awful, but not exactly stellar as well. Zaitsev’s presence was sorely missed in those four OT losses. The defensive stalwart is inarguably the team’s best defensive defenceman and there’s no denying that his team is happy to have him back.
“It was pretty evident we missed him,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said after practice.
Just how important is Zaitsev to Babcock and his coaching strategy? Well, the sophomore blue liner plays nearly EVERY minute of the penalty kill and averages a team high 22:50 of ice time per game. He’s the team’s defensive rock.
“We’re just not as good (without Zaitsev), not as deep,” admitted Babcock. “The mistakes we make on defence are because we have guys in the wrong spots. Sometimes they’re better in the 5-6- hole than in the 3-4 four hole. When we got those two pairs (regular partners Jake Gardiner and Zaitsev, Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey) we’ve got two who can play against anybody. It’s really significant.”
So, when will Zaitsev make his return to the lineup?
“My cardio is not that good, but I did it today so it will be better tomorrow. I’ll try to (come back) as soon as possible,” said the Russian defender. “Passing and shooting was hard the first two days, so I was getting mad. There is no pain (now). Next day after a game, you’ll be sure if it’s bothering you. (A return date) is up to the trainers, but I’ll try and do it as fast as I can. I was so happy to see the guys today.”
About those trainers… coach Babcock sounds like he has a plan up his sleeve. “He says he’s good,” Babcock said about Zaitsev. “He thinks he’s farther ahead than the trainers. I don’t know who wins that one. We’ll figure that out.”
Zaitsev, Babcock and the trainers have until 7:30pm tomorrow to figure it out, as the Leafs return from the all-star break to take on the New York Islanders from the ACC. Good to have you back, Niki!