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Zaitsev ready to regain a strong grip on his confidence after a memorable summer
15 ñåíòÿáðÿ 2018 ãîäà. Toronto Sun. By Terry Koshan.
NIAGARA FALLS — Nikita Zaitsev is hoping his “unbelievable” summer translates into a consistently good winter.
The Maple Leafs defenceman, about to embark on the second season of a seven-year contract that carries a salary cap hit of $4.5-million US, acknowledged on Saturday that he was not the same player mentally when he returned to the Toronto lineup late in January after missing 17 games because of a foot injury.
“Hard to say … no confidence in yourself,” Zaitsev said following the second day of training camp at the Gale Centre. “If you miss just one game, it’s pretty hard to come back, if you miss two games.
“When I missed six weeks, it’s … it’s not excuses, I am telling you how I was last year. That’s what I feel like — I can’t keep myself on the same level. I started the season really good and I was confident in every game, in every minute what I did on the ice, after that it was not going well.”
Zaitsev broke a bone in his right foot while blocking a shot in Detroit against the Red Wings on Dec. 15, and didn’t play again until Jan. 31.
Zaitsev’s ice time dropped to a degree as the regular season wound down as he battled to be consistent, though he did finish second among Leafs with an average of 22 minutes 13 seconds a game, 19 seconds behind defence partner Jake Gardiner. And Zaitsev was second in ice time while the Leafs were shorthanded, helping Toronto finish 11th in the National Hockey League in penalty-killing.
The 26-year-old Zaitsev was buoyed by his play for Russia at the world championship after the Leafs were eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs by the Boston Bruins, and now Zaitsev is ready to take a refreshed outlook into the pre-season and then when the games begin to count in the standings.
“I picked (some confidence) up in the worlds,” Zaitsev said. “It was a pretty good tournament for me. I was maybe relaxed a little bit in my head.”
Zaitsev further put his mind at ease during the summer when he and wife Margo loaded their two daughters into the family vehicle in Moscow and embarked on a memorable road trip, driving through Finland, Sweden and south through Europe before winding up in Forte dei Marmi, Italy, for a month of vacation.
It’s not the first time Zaitsev has holidayed in Italy, where he rents a house. What does he enjoy about that part of the world?
“Everything,” Zaitsev said. “Lots of people I know. Good weather, good food.”
More than a few days were spent on the beach with daughters Sonia and Vera, who was born in Toronto last September just as Leafs training camp started.
And a phone call every so often from coach Mike Babcock helped keep Zaitsev in a proper frame of mind.
“The No. 1 thing for an athlete (is having a coach who believes in you),” Zaitsev said. “It’s going to stay in the locker room, but he does a great job (with) that. He talks. He calls everybody.”
Babcock’s habit is one that players have come to expect and appreciate.
“We talked a lot about that, confidence,” Babcock said of Zaitsev. “But if you talk to every player who comes in, you talk about three things they want to work on, they always talk about consistency and confidence (as two).
“It’s the NHL, it’s hard to have your confidence all the time but you have to get back on track and I think a big part of that is having a whole life, having something to do outside the rink besides thinking about hockey.”
There’s no doubt Zaitsev has as much with a busy household. Vera took her first steps “a couple of days ago,” Zaitsev proudly told a couple of reporters.
Soon, the focus will be on getting back to a level on the ice that Babcock and the Leafs can admire every night, not just every so often.
“I’m just happy to be here this year,” Zaitsev said. “I’m absolutely healthy, I’m excited, lots of good things happened this summer with the team.
“I think I can do better, for sure — just do my job better.”
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