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Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski / USA TODAY Sports

No, we shouldn’t believe that Nikita Zaitsev played through a concussion

Yesterday morning, social media was ablaze with talk about Russia’s selections and invitees for the upcoming Men’s World Championships in France and Germany, which begin in about a week and a half. But the selected players weren’t so much the story, as was this tweet about Leafs defenceman Nikita Zaitsev:

Kalniņš’ tweet stemmed from the Russian Hockey Federation’s initial press release, which was quickly pulled and edited to add additional info. The release was as follows:

Защитник «Торонто» Никита Зайцев и нападающий «Монреаля» Александр Радулов не смогут принять участие в чемпионате мира в Германии и Франции. Ситуацию прокомментировал глава скаутской службы Федерации хоккея России Алексей Жамнов:

– Никита Зайцев в матче регулярного чемпионата НХЛ получил травму – сотрясение мозга. Никита сыграл в плей-офф, но его нынешнее состояние здоровья не позволяет выступить за сборную на мировом первенстве. «Торонто» не отпустил защитника в расположение нашей команды. Нападающий Александр Радулов отказался от участия в чемпионате мира в связи с отсутствием действующего контракта с клубом.

I know that, for most of you, two paragraphs of Cyrillic isn’t going to do much good. So here’s a more direct English translation:

Nikita Zaitsev was injured in an NHL regular season game, and suffered a concussion. Nikita played in the playoffs, but in his current condition, he’s unable to play at the World Championship. Toronto [Maple Leafs] didn’t release him to our team. Alexander Radulov refused to participate at the World Championship because he hasn’t signed a contract with his team.

This, of course, sounds pretty worrisome when worded as it is, especially when followed up with tweets like this from Kalniņš:

None of us like the idea of the Leafs sending players out in an unfit state, especially when brain injuries are at play. We know that the team has done it in previous years; the likes of Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, James Reimer, Mikhail Grabovski, Colby Armstrong, and many, many more had been thrust into the lineup ahead of schedule in the past, so it’s not like it’s a song and dance we haven’t seen before.

But this is a new staff with new players, and we’ve seen a shift in philosophy. When William Nylander was concussed in the 2016 World Juniors, Leafs management had the Swedish Hockey Federation shut him down for the tournament immediately, kept him in Helsinki until the was cleared to fly, flew him back home, and kept him out of the lineup until they were 100% certain he was ready to go (and then a little extra, as he suffered appendicitis). The Marlies wouldn’t even let Andreas Johnsson leave his hotel room for over a week after he was concussed by Dan Kelly. They took their time easing Brendan Leipsic (concussion) and Kasperi Kapanen (leg) in from long term injuries during a big standings push this season and pulled Garret Sparks out of his net as a preventative measure in a playoff game just two days ago.

You might suggest that prospects are a different story, but this year’s Leafs showed no signs of rushing back from injury during the regular season; even with core players like Frederik Andersen (who was called off by a spotter in a pivotal game, but kept off and rested for an extra day despite showing no concussion systems during a major push for points) Morgan Rielly (6 games missed), and Mitch Marner (5 games missed). Marner’s was perhaps the most important one here because it gave us this key quote: via the Toronto Star.

“He looks to me like he’s the best player out there today so I don’t know why he’s not dressed tonight,” Babcock said.

Marner is nursing a suspected right shoulder injury. He’s still listed as day-to-day.

Babcock recently suggested, with some frustration, that Marner is being held out at the insistence of the team’s medical staff, which includes a sports science division.

“That’s why they have these doctors and these trainers is because the coach and the player (think he could) be playing today,” he said earlier this week. “But they don’t let us get involved in the equation and we save ourselves from ourselves.”

While the timing of Zaitsev’s return landed nicely with the confirmation of Roman Polak’s injury, it should be noted that Zaitsev had already been participating in skates for several days before being cleared to play and that the Leafs had simultaneously been very upfront in declaring Polak done for the season. It should also be noted that Zaitsev’s return came a week after his collision in Columbus; Post-Concussion Syndrome Symptoms tend to make appearances within the first seven days.

There’s also the whole thing about that rumoured seven-year extend to digest. If the Leafs are about to sign a player into his 30s, would they really risk making an injury worse for the sake of not playing Alexey Marchenko for a game or two?

Ultimately, I can’t tell you 100% for certain that the 25-year-old defenceman was, well, 100% in Games 3-6. But if the gossip is being fueled by presumptuous tweets, I’d be inclined to side with the team’s recent history of over-protection with any sort of injuries (let alone ones involving the head) over a few speculatory tweets from across the pond.

If I had to wager a guess as to what’s going in this situation, it’s most likely has to do with Zaitsev’s schedule in the past eighteen months which includes…

  • A near-full KHL season, appearance in European Hockey Tour tournaments
  • A full Gagarin Cup playoff run with CSKA Moscow, ending in Game 7 of the final
  • A trip to the 2016 World Championships, taking him to late May
  • Participating in the World Cup of Hockey in September
  • A full 82 game rookie NHL season, playing top pairing minutes
  • Two-thirds of a playoff series after a brief injury scare

Or, put another way, that’s 168 games of hockey since September 2015, in the two best leagues in the world, and three international tournaments, with fewer than 15 weeks of offseason in between the two seasons. That’s.. a lot of hockey.

More likely than not, both the Leafs doctors and Zaitsev agreed that it would be best for him to get a head start on his summer, and Zaitsev had the team take the brunt of the “blame” for it to avoid future repercussions from the national team. The Russian Hockey Federation’s press release then was put out in a way that stretched the situation to sound slightly direr, to sell to Russian fans that they tried their best to get the player on their team, but simply couldn’t.

Going back to Russia to take a physical would likely tie his hands and give him no excuse for opting out. Not to mention, it would require more effort than it would for your average Russian player; Zaitsev has lived in Russia in the summer since long before he signed with the Leafs, and with his family now settled in too, it’s pretty safe to assume that staying here is staying home.

Simply put, don’t put too much stock into the gossip. It’s been a long while since this team has dropped the ball on an injury recovery situation, and it doesn’t make sense to point to a player using the easy way out of playing in the World Championships as proof that the pattern has changed.

  • FlareKnight

    I don’t think there’s any doubt that Zaitsev doesn’t come back when he did if Polak isn’t injured. He was on the way to coming back from the skating he was doing. But it was a likely sub-100% Zaitsev vs playing Marchenko and Marincin in the same D group.

    Although I don’t think he was actively suffering a concussion though while playing. The Leafs aren’t that reckless and I doubt the medical staff is cool with doing that.

  • MartinPolak

    Are all those analytics folks on twitter Doctors as they seem to have a lot of knowledge about Zaistev’s conditions and the leaf doctor happenings. jeffler thank you for being the voice of sanity. Now if you could only get those twitter analytics folks fired like you did with POS or at least embarrass them with their faulty logic and asinine opinions I never say a bad thing about you again.

  • Gary Empey

    I will add one thing I read about concussions a few years ago. It went something like this. After a player receives a concussion and he appears to be symptom free, the shorter the time he returns the more likely, he is apt to get another one if he get another knock on the head. The longer the player can avoid getting knocked on the head there is a better chance of a complete and total recovery back to his original state. I think we all remember when concussions first became news in the NHL there were a lot of players who came back way to early and continued to get concussions fairly easy, eventually leading to early retirement and permanent damage. I don’t believe all the research regarding concussions has been completed. After all the brain is a very complex organ. Symptoms or not, the longer he can avoid a knock on the head, is better for his health.