Babcock calls Zaitsev 'playoff ready,' but needs time to get healthy

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Questions have been raised about the health of Nikita Zaitsev after the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first-round exit. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Questions have been raised about the health of Nikita Zaitsev after the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first-round exit. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

There seems to be a slight disconnect between Mike Babcock and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ medical staff, perhaps by design.

For instance, Babcock will joke that he noticed an injured player doing something that indicates they are close to being fit enough to return, only to remark about how he’s disappointed when the medical staff intervenes.

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In every likelihood, the routine is part true, part masquerade. Babcock has too much on his plate to constantly monitor the health status of his injured players. But at the same time, it would be naive to believe that he doesn’t know exactly what’s going on and that he’s not using it as a ruse to deflect and control the message.

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It’s a useful tactic in a market constantly prodding for information. But in the case of Nikita Zaitsev, who returned from a concussion to suit up in Game 3 and completed Toronto’s first-round series versus Washington, it’s a bit problematic.

One day after the Russian Hockey Federation reportedly announced that he wasn’t available due to a concussion, Zaitsev told Sportnet’s Chris Johnston that he did not gain “necessary clearance” from the Leafs to represent his country at the upcoming world championships despite receiving the green light to slot back into the lineup when Roman Polak went out.

Babcock said this about Zaitsev’s health at his exit meeting with reporters on Tuesday.

“He’s playoff ready but needs time. 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.”

His initial response is troubling. With the inexact nature of concussions, there’s no room for obscurity in the mandate put forth to actually protect players. They’re either healthy enough to perform hockey-related functions, or they’re definitively not.

In this world, competition has no bearing.

Then Babcock went on, and without making a direct comparison to Auston Matthews, who the Maple Leafs helped advise to skip the month-long tournament as well, pointed to the same factors that weighed into that decision.

“If you go through our whole group, we got some banged up guys, so I think it’s important for Nikita to get as healthy as he can. Big year for him. He played at the world championships last year, played in the World Cup, played all year for us. (He’s) played more hockey than he’s ever played, and was great.

“Needs to get freshened up.”

Even so, there are a couple issues here, both certainly not exclusive to the Maple Leafs, but ones that raise concern specific to Zaitsev.

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One, the inexact nature of concussions themselves are only further muddled by the typical language used to control the message. Sure, there’s humour in Polak describing his injury as “lower body” while his ankle and foot are wrapped in a cast, but not so when transparency is lacking in situations that involve the head.

Second, and while this is partly speculation, both team and player strive to have the decision to skip out on an international event to remain mutual, as to prevent the assignment of blame.

It’s understandable, sure. But when ambiguity persists around a player that recently returned from a head injury, and “playoff ready” is the simplistic explanation used for his return eight days after suffering the blow, it raises very real questions about the practices.

Even if the Maple Leafs would just prefer that he stayed home.

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