Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Leafs Rookie Nikita Zaitsev Not Intimidated by Sidney Crosby or the NHL

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Leafs Rookie Nikita Zaitsev Not Intimidated by Sidney Crosby or the NHL

Article excerpt

Leafs rookie Nikita Zaitsev shows no fear

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TORONTO - Nikita Zaitsev sees no reason why he should be intimidated by the National Hockey League.

"I'm not 17-years-old so why I should be scared?" the 25-year-old defenceman from Moscow said defiantly, citing his extensive KHL and international experience.

The oldest and least heralded of Toronto's rookie crop plays with a steely swagger that belies his limited NHL experience. For example, Zaitsev is eagerly a awaiting a rematch with Sidney Crosby despite a recent humbling at the hands of the Penguins superstar.

"He plays hard and he doesn't really care about what other people think and that's a good thing," said teammate Leo Komarov.

Komarov didn't think that had anything to do with Zaitsev's age or history of overseas play.

"I think it's just the way he is," Komarov said.

Signing a one-year contract with the Leafs in the summer, the undrafted Zaitsev had apparently been getting ready to play in the NHL for some time, preparing himself mentally for nightly tests against the stars he'd spent so much time watching at home in Russia. Teammates believe his strong self-belief compliments his talents.

"He knew he could step in and be effective," fellow defenceman Connor Carrick said. "And at the same time, the reason he's confident is he's got a really strong skill-set."

A strong skater with suave puck skills and good size (six foot two, almost 200 pounds), Zaitsev has quickly risen to the Leafs top defensive pairing, already taking on almost 22 minutes per-game, third most among NHL rookies. His seven points (all assists) are also tied for third among first-year defencemen.

Leafs coach Mike Babcock knew he liked Zaitsev before the season got going and had an idea of how the rookie might be able to contribute, but wasn't certain what he'd get from a player used to a foreign league, bigger rink and entirely different world.

"I didn't know he was going to be a pro like he is," Babcock said.

Specifically, Babcock said, Zaitsev is "way more competitive than I could have hoped."

Witness his testy front-of-the-net battles with Ryan Johansen on Tuesday night. …

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