Nikita Soshnikov’s NHL chances damaged by summer of distress

Auston Matthews scores a hat trick and the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Montreal Canadiens.

TORONTO – He wondered about his health and his mind and even his future. There was plenty of time to mull over every undesirable possibility during Nikita Soshnikov’s summer of distress.

“I’m thinking about it every day, you know, and waiting until when the day is coming when you feel fine,” said Soshnikov. “Every morning you’re waking up expecting to feel normal again.”

Day after day of disappointment.

The 23-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs winger would start a workout and immediately feel “foggy” when his heart rate rose. He returned to the ice in June, but something wasn’t right. So he’d take a couple days off to “reset” and then put his skates back on.

It felt like an endless cycle.

“Try again, try again, try again,” he said.

Soshnikov last played for the Maple Leafs on March 20. He took two offensive zone hits in that game from Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara and neither really stood out as dangerous at the time. However, Soshnikov gave up 10 inches and 65 pounds in those exchanges and appeared to strike the side of his head on the glass with each.

He was on the ice in the final minute as Toronto protected a one-goal lead against the Bruins that night and consulted with the training staff afterwards.

It was a concussion. The first documented one of his career.

Naturally, it was officially labelled an “upper-body injury” by the team – a development that didn’t raise much alarm since Soshnikov had experienced shoulder issues in the past. His absence also triggered the series of events that saw Kasperi Kapanen called up for the push to the playoffs and a first-round series with Washington.

Publicly, there wasn’t much hint of what Soshnikov was going through. I was surprised to learn just how miserable his recovery had been after asking the most innocuous of questions: “How was your summer?”

Soshnikov says his concussion symptoms included dizziness, fogginess, nausea, mood swings and sleeplessness.

“I’ve been training all summer, but I had symptoms every day afterwards,” he said. “It was for six months. It was really long.”

His condition was bad enough that he wasn’t permitted to travel back home to Russia to visit family – remaining instead in Toronto, where he could be monitored by the Leafs medical staff.

It’s now been a year and a half since he was last in his hometown of Nizhny Tagil. He misses the mountains and food. There isn’t a day that passes without him speaking with his parents on the phone.

“They were worried about me a lot and so am I,” said Soshnikov. “They support me really well. I don’t know what I would do without them.”

His girlfriend Anastasia – a Ukrainian he met in Toronto – has been a rock as well. She’s probably most responsible for the dramatic improvement in his English since they flip back and forth with Russian.

After a summer of starts and stops, the fog lifted earlier this month.

A sense of normalcy began to return for Soshnikov about two weeks before training camp, and he was cleared for full participation. If you’ve been watching the pre-season and thought he looked a bit tentative, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. This is a process.

“I knew it’s going to be really tough,” he said. “I’m nervous for sure.”

It was natural to worry about how he’d feel after getting hit during the first game in Ottawa last week. Those concerns had eased considerably by Saturday’s visit to Buffalo. He’ll make his third exhibition appearance against the Montreal Canadiens in Quebec City on Wednesday night.

Undrafted and somewhat undersized at five-foot-11, Soshnikov willed his way to the NHL with tenacity and a big-league work ethic.

The biggest challenge when he arrived in North America two years ago was getting him to take a day off. He quickly established himself as an effective forechecker and played 56 games as a fourth liner for the Leafs last season.

It remains to be seen what kind of long-term impact the concussion might have on him. He sought out as much information as possible about how best to recover.

“I asked so many guys,” said Soshnikov. “From this team, from other teams, from Russia, everywhere. That’s the thing with concussions: Everybody’s different and you just never know. They’re searching, but even doctors, they don’t know the answer, you know?”

In the short term, it’s certainly impacted his chances of cracking the Leafs lineup this fall. He barely seems to be in the conversation.

Soshnikov doesn’t require waivers to be sent to the American Hockey League – falling three career NHL games short of the threshold – and is likely bound for the Marlies given Toronto’s considerable roster crunch at forward.

Despite that possibility, this is a good news story.

“I feel myself again,” said Soshnikov. “That’s the main point for me right now.”