When will Nikita Zaitsev return?

CALGARY, AB - NOVEMBER 28: Nikita Zaitsev
CALGARY, AB - NOVEMBER 28: Nikita Zaitsev /

Nikita Zaitsev hasn’t played since Dec. 15, but when will the blue liner actually return to action for the Toronto Maple Leafs?

While it helps contribute towards the exciting product you see on the ice, the Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t exactly known for their defence. Certainly, it needs to improve between now and the end of the season, otherwise the Leafs’ trip to the playoffs likely won’t last very long.

One thing which would help the blue line improve, is the return of Nikita Zaitsev. The Leafs’ leader in average ice time has been sorely missed, since he suffered a suspected broken foot on Dec. 15, against the Detroit Red Wings.

While hockey is a team game, the difference in average goals conceded without Zaitsev is noticeably. Prior to his injury, the Leafs allowed an average of 2.8 goals per content.

Since losing the 26-year-old, the Leafs have seen this average increase to 3.5 goals per game. In addition, whether or not you’re a fan of the plus/minus rating, Zaitsev is +8, which is first among Toronto defencemen and fourth overall on the team.

At the time of his injury, the Moscow, Russian native was second in the NHL with 94 blocks. All in all, the Leafs need the all-around talented d-man back as soon as possible.

This all leads to the question of when Zaitsev will return to the ice for the Toronto Maple Leafs? Unfortunately for the fans, there is no definitive answer at this stage.

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Whether this is by design or not is open to interpretation. Regardless, Leafs’ coach Mike Babcock was somewhat vague, when discussing the timeline for the two-time KHL All-Star’s return to action.

As reported by the Toronto Sun‘s Lance Hornby, Babcock said Zaitsev won’t be back until at least after the five-day break which follows the Jan. 10 game against the Ottawa Senators. This means the earliest Leafs fans can expect the blue liner to return is Jan. 16, for the contest with the St. Louis Blues.

Given Zaitsev’s importance to the Leafs, it would come as no surprise if his return is delayed until towards the end of January, as a precautionary measure. It is vital he is fully healthy, in anticipation of what Babcock hopes will be a deep run come playoff time.

Next: 3 takeaways from Leafs' disappointing end to 2017

What’s your opinion of Zaitsev’s play so far this season? How important is he to the Leafs’ blue line? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.