Leafs defenceman Nikita Zaitsev closing in on return to lineup

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Nikita Zaitsev talks about making his return from injury and the challenges of returning from a lower body injury.

TORONTO – There was nothing more Nikita Zaitsev could have done to protect himself from the shot that derailed his season.

The Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman was wearing a protective shot-blocker over his right skate in Detroit on Dec. 15 while battling for position in front of his own net. He doesn’t even think the Henrik Zetterberg shot that caught him on the inside of the skate boot was particularly hard.

It just caught him in the right – well, wrong – place to do damage.

“It cracked the shot-blocker,” Zaitsev said Monday. “You never know, it just find the spot. It can hit not that hard, it’s just the spot. Like when the glass is broken in the rink, it’s not a hard shot, it’s just the spot.”

This one broke a bone in his right foot and saw him spend four weeks on crutches. He recently resumed skating on his own before joining teammates for practice coming out of the all-star break.

Zaitsev is anxious to get back in the lineup after missing the last 17 games with the injury and seemed optimistic he’ll get the opportunity this week.

It could even come as soon as Wednesday’s visit from the New York Islanders.

Even with the limitation of hobbling around crutches, he did everything in his power to maintain fitness. The 26-year-old says he took just one day off from training – spending the first couple weeks largely focused on upper-body workouts.

“There’s lots of toys,” he said, when asked what type of exercises the trainers put him through.

Zaitsev was logging the most minutes of any Leafs player when he went down, although his average of 22:50 per game has since been eclipsed by Jake Gardiner (23:02). It forced head coach Mike Babcock to lean more heavily on Connor Carrick and callup Travis Dermott, especially after Morgan Rielly suffered an upper-body injury in Philadelphia on Jan. 18.

The blue-line depth has been tested, and it’s not considered a strength of the organization.

“It was pretty evident that we missed him when he was gone,” Babcock said of Zaitsev. “I mean we’re just not as good, we’re not as deep, and the mistakes we make on defence [are] because we’ve got guys in the wrong spots. Some guys are just better in the 5-6 hole than they are in the 3-4 hole.”

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Life is a little more comfortable for the coach when he can roll out a top pairing of Rielly and Ron Hainsey followed by Gardiner and Zaitsev.

“When we’ve got those two pairs, we’ve got two pairs that can play against anybody,” said Babcock. “You don’t have to be concerned, you don’t have to be as worried about your matchup and people are all comfortable playing in their spot.

“I think it’s real significant.”

The layoff has been especially tough on Zaitsev, who played all 82 regular-season games last season before missing two in the playoffs with a concussion. During a seven-year career in the KHL, he never experienced an injury absence anywhere near as long as this one.

“It’s always hard to watch your team playing and it’s always hard to be injured,” said Zaitsev. “It looks like it was so long. Like it [felt] like it lasted for a year, for me, or so. I’m very happy that I’m a back.”

Since he didn’t join the team on any road trips, he’s spent more time than usual at home with wife Margo and young daughters Sonia and Vera. That’s come with its own challenges.

“I’m so tired from the house already,” Zaitsev said with a laugh. “I cannot be there any more. I want to go for a road trip for a month.”

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