Leafs’ Zaitsev growing more comfortable building a life in Toronto

Sportsnet's Shawn McKenzie recaps the opening day of training camp for the Toronto Maple Leafs where the players and coaches that are trying build off past success and not let it get to their heads.

NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. – When it came time for Nikita and Margo Zaitsev to name their new daughter, they chose something that sounded pleasing to the ears.

But they also settled on a name – Vera – befitting a Russian family now going about building its life on Canadian soil.

"I think it’s Russian, but I don’t know," said Zaitsev. "It’s international maybe. I saw some Vera’s in the U.S., so it’s a worldwide name."

Theirs will be an international household. Vera was born Friday in a Toronto hospital, giving her claim to Canadian citizenship, while 19-month-old sister Sonia is Russian after arriving while her father still played for CSKA Moscow in the KHL.

The children are each poised to spend their early years a long way from their parents’ homeland because Zaitsev signed a $31.5-million, seven-year extension with the Maple Leafs during the off-season – one of the longest commitments in franchise history.

That degree of loyalty brought great joy to Zaitsev, who spent two summers training with Gary Roberts in suburban Toronto while trying to land a job in the NHL. He ended up playing all 82 games as a 25-year-old rookie with the Leafs last season.

"This is like really happy," said Zaitsev. "I really appreciate that. It’s very important for me that the people trust me and sign me for so long.

"You can just concentrate on your job. This is the only thing; so you don’t think about other things."

That said, he could be forgiven if his mind was still racing on Sunday morning while being put through his first on-ice session at training camp after being excused for Vera’s birth. Zaitsev acknowledged that it felt a "little bit weird" to jump straight into a high-paced practice with teammates at Gale Centre.

In the big picture, it’s nothing compared to the challenges he overcame last season.

Arriving in North America following seven years in the KHL, there were times he felt some homesickness. The most emotional the stoic defenceman got all season was after scoring his first NHL goal against Pittsburgh on Dec. 18 while his parents and other family members from Russia were visiting Toronto.

On the ice, his adjustment was smoother than anyone could have reasonably expected. He logged the second-most minutes on the team and showed himself to be "ultra-smart, ultra-competitive and a good, good player," according to head coach Mike Babcock.

"A top-four D-man in the NHL all day long," he added. "Great human being."

By the end of the season, Zaitsev and Jake Gardiner were drawing the shutdown matchups. The grind of the NHL schedule caused the six-foot-two, 195-pound Zaitsev to lose weight – making it a priority for him to add muscle this off-season and attempt to manage himself better in the season ahead.

Ryan Dixon and Rory Boylen go deep on pucks with a mix of facts and fun, leaning on a varied group of hockey voices to give their take on the country’s most beloved game.

He still has plenty of time to get up to speed before Toronto’s opener in Winnipeg on Oct. 4. The team has eight exhibition games to play – starting Monday night in Ottawa – and Babcock intends to dress each of his veterans for at least four of them.

Perhaps the bigger question is how much rest Zaitsev will be able to get with a newborn at home.

"Our first one was pretty quiet so we’ll see what’s going on," he said.

The family recently moved closer to the Leafs practice facility in suburban Etobicoke after living downtown last season. They are setting down roots. He and Margo most enjoy walking around the high-end Yorkville shopping area on offdays.

During an off-season where the couple spent time in Russia, Italy and California, they experienced a different feeling after returning to Toronto a couple weeks ago.

"I’m more comfortable every day here," said Zaitsev. "This year, we came here and that’s like second home already. We spent here all last year and we love it.

"We love that city. We love everything about it."