International Ice Hockey Federation

Babcock’s new joker

Babcock’s new joker

Nikita Zaitsev talks about Worlds and Toronto

Published 01.06.2016 14:39 GMT+3 | Author Pavel Lysenkov
Babcock’s new joker
Russia's Alexei Yemelin (left) and Nikita Zaitsev (right) share a laugh following a 4-1 quarter-final round win over Germany at the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Mike Babcock visited him in Moscow. He made the All-Star Team and led the Worlds with a +12 rating. Who is it? Nikita Zaitsev.

As long as Zaitsev was on the ice, not a single puck went into the Russian net. During all of Russia’s ten games at the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.

Zaitsev became one of the rare Russian players from domestic competition to make the All-Star Team in the 21st century.

Of course, it is far too early to compare Zaitsev with Vyacheslav Fetisov (nine times on the World Championship All-Star Team), Alexei Kasatonov (5) or Alexander Ragulin (4). The only thing they have in common is that they all played for CSKA Moscow.

But a very promising defenceman is growing within the Russian national team for whom the Toronto Maple Leafs have been waiting a whole year to get him signed. We talked with the 24-year-old after the Worlds and before his transfer to Toronto.

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock came to Moscow to the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship for you. He told the press he would like to go for a dinner with you. What did you talk about?
This shall remain between the two of us. We talked about general things. He told me what happens at Toronto Maple Leafs and in town.

Have you been following the Maple Leafs this season?
Yes, I watched some games and followed the news.

You played against Auston Matthews and Patrick Laine in the World Championship. One of these forwards will likely be drafted as number one by the Leafs. Can you compare them?
These are completely different players. Matthews is a centre and Laine is a winger. It is difficult to compare. It is more of a question for the Maple Leafs management who they want to get more and which position needs reinforcement.

Mike Babcock was surprised that you were not used on power play. Perhaps, they are prepared to give you that role in Toronto?
It is very good. I am ready to be on a power play anytime and anywhere.

Will it be an issue for you to adapt to the NHL and North America?
I have regularly visited North America. I won’t have problems adapting to the new place. I’m fluent in English. Soon I will fly to Toronto for a few days. I have to buy a house to avoid running around when my family comes over. Then I will rest a little in Europe. I want to see the sea. Then I will start training and move to Canada.

Alexander Ovechkin said that as a child he used to support San Jose because he liked the shark on their logo. Which NHL team did you like as a child?
There was a poster of Colorado above my bed when they won the Stanley Cup. I also watched Detroit when they became champions in 1997. I knew the names of each player and coach.

You were a free agent and could have chosen any team. Why did you choose to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs?
Yes, I had a choice. But with Toronto everything just fell together. The people were good to me throughout the year. They showed their interest in me. It played a great role.

You were presented with a Maple Leafs jersey a year ago.
I now have many jerseys from Toronto. They always gave me something when they came over.

Did it make you proud that you had a tournament-best +12 rating at the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship?
It is a good bonus but nothing more. By the way Alexei Marchenko was +12 too. We had an excellent team understanding.

Is being part of the All-Star Team of the World Championship important to you? And what about the fact that you were given the golden helmet award at the KHL ceremony as one of the best defencemen of the league?
These are simply nice bonuses. These awards will be something to tell about my career later.

But you have many awards! Can we say that this season was a success for you?
It cannot be called a success. I didn’t win anything this year. Only a bronze medal at the World Championship and I was in the Gagarin Cup final. That is not enough.

Russian head coach Oleg Znarok also named you to the roster for the World Cup of Hockey. How was that for you?
It hadn’t been a dream in my life before. But now, when I am 24, I understand that it is a serious tournament. Maybe the coolest there is in hockey.

It won’t be you going to the World Cup, it will be the Russian national team coming to you to Toronto. What’s your plan until the pre-season?
I won’t rest for more than three weeks on vacation. Before the start of the camp I will train on my own.


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