Toronto Maple Leafs: Was Nikita Zaitsev’s Injury Handled Properly?

Mar 20, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Nikita Zaitsev (22) skates against the Boston Bruins at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Boston 4-2. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 20, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Nikita Zaitsev (22) skates against the Boston Bruins at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Boston 4-2. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports /

The Russian Hockey Federation raised questions about the status of defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, after the Toronto Maple Leafs did not clear for him for the World Championship.

The subject of concussions is a sensitive one, especially when it comes to players putting themselves at risk by playing through an injury. After the Toronto Maple Leafs were eliminated by the Washington Capitals, there were questions about Nikita Zaitsev’s condition after returning from a concussion.

Then a report surfaced on Monday about Zaitsev’s condition, after the Russian Hockey Federation were told he would not be playing in the World Championship:

That first report was then edited, saying the Leafs refused to release Zaitsev to Russia. It would be understandable if the team does not feel that he should not participate.

One, is the fact that while the team deemed him healthy enough to play in the playoffs, the chances of him getting re-injured and the effect it can have on his offseason preparation is a big risk. The other point is whether Zaitsev would have wanted to play for Russia – he may have wanted to, but with no guaranteed contract, it’s probably a risk he does not want to take.

The NHL updated their concussion protocol in back in October 2016 when it comes to removing players that show symptoms of a concussion and a spotter would remove them. This is the protocol the NHL and the NHLPA have in place when dealing with a player who is diagnosed with a concussion:

"VIII. RETURN TO PLAYA Player who is diagnosed with a concussion shall not return to practice or a game on the same day that the event occurred, irrespective of how quickly his symptoms resolve. A Player may return to unrestricted play at a time later than the day the event occurred if the following three circumstances have occurred: (1) there is complete recovery of concussion-related symptoms at rest; (2) there is no emergence of concussion-related symptoms at exertion levels required for competitive play; and (3) the player has been judged by the Club’s Physician to have returned to his neurocognitive baseline following an evaluation by the Club consulting neuropsychologist.There is no mandatory period of time that a Player must be withheld from play following a concussion, as the return to play decision is based on the individual circumstances of that Player. The Club Physician remains solely responsible for making return to play decisions based on these parameters, including in circumstances where the Player is referred to a consultant for management and treatment. Prior to making the return to play decision, the Club Physician shall ensure that all aspects of the Protocol have been satisfied, including referral for neuropsychological assessment.More from Toronto Maple LeafsMaple Leafs Rumours: Half of NHL teams interested in Ilya MikheyevToronto Maple Leafs: How to address the goaltender positionLeafs reward Timothy Liljegren with extension after breakout seasonMaple Leafs: Jack Campbell situation becoming increasingly uncertainJason Spezza retires, joins Toronto Maple Leafs front office"

In Zaitsev’s case, Mike Babcock was pushing to get him to play, but was denied by team physicians on several occasions. This is where the NHL has trust in team physicians to make the right call, especially when they make it clear the player needs to be fit to return.

It would be tough to see Babcock having enough influence to get Zaitsev cleared all of a sudden, especially because Brendan Shanahan and Lou Lamoriello would have probably stepped in. The only way the Leafs could have allowed Zaitsev to play while he was still injured, is if he was able to keep his symptoms quiet from doctors.

It was clear that Zaitsev was not himself when he returned and it would have been tough to expect him to be 100 percent. Babcock was adamant he was good enough to play in the playoffs where many players play through injuries, like Joe Thornton did in round one:

"“He’s playoff ready but needs time,” said Babcock. “Because we have been given the opportunity to do that, he’s not going to play for his country at the worlds and he’s going to get 100 percent healthy.”"

It is not easy for Russian hockey fans to accept Zaitsev being held back, given how much of an impact he could have had for them. However, it would have been tough to expect him to play at his best, coming back from a concussion and from all the hockey he has played the past two season.

After playing a full season in the KHL, including a deep playoff run, he played in the World Championship. He then represented Russia at the World Cup of Hockey and played a full season with the Leafs.

That is a lot of hockey for anyone and to expect Zaitsev to play more would not have been in his best interest. He even said in his exit interview with the media that he wants to take time in the summer to get ready for next season.

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With a reported long-term extension waiting to be confirmed and announced, both Zaitsev and the Leafs are keeping the focus on the future. That is why it is unlikely the team would have put him in a vulnerable position, regardless of if this may be hard for people to believe, especially those in Russia.