Defenseman Nikita Zaitsev struggled last season. He was demoted to the AHL for a month by the Senators, missed time because of injury and was traded in a salary dump to the Blackhawks.
After the season, however, instead of going home to Russia, Zaitsev went to Florida, a popular summer destination for many NHL players from Russia. And in Florida, working with a new trainer for the first time, Zaitsev, 31, realized what might have been the cause of his struggles.
“A lot of the injuries we talked about . . . would be more from tightness and pain that he had from playing,” said Scott Foresman, owner of BioCore Sports Performance, a gym near Fort Lauderdale.
“He would take it as, ‘I have a lower back injury.’ I would be like, ‘No, you have a movement problem that causes your lower-back [pain].’ That was the longest thing it took for him to understand. He just assumed his back would hurt the rest of his life. The more and more we worked together, as he started trusting the movements, I would be like, ‘How did your back feel at the end of his session?’ And he would be like, ‘I didn’t even notice.’ ”
Zaitsev is now back with the Hawks for the last year of his seven-year contract (carrying a $4.5 million salary-cap hit) and should be in the mix for third-pairing duties.
He’ll need to play significantly better than he did last season — when he had three points and an awful 33.0% scoring-chance ratio in 18 appearances with the Hawks — to hold down a regular spot and have any chance of receiving another NHL contract. But he believes he’s prepared to do exactly that.
“I had some stuff [last season] that I don’t even want to think about,” Zaitsev said. “[This season, I’m] absolutely much more comfortable. It was a scrambly year, so I came in and didn’t know the guys. Now we’re getting to know each other much more, and [I’m] getting to know the system.”
His work with Foresman has allowed him to finally feel “loose and fresh’’ throughout training camp.
“A lot of [trainers] focus so much on strength and power,” Foresman said. “When you get to a certain age . . . movement is a lot more important for him to be the most efficient athlete.”
Foresman discovered that Zaitsev, when trying to exert full power in an exercise, thought he needed to get into an “extremely deep” squat and squeeze his muscles. But Zaitsev’s 6-2 body is not designed for such a deep position, which meant he would subconsciously “pop up” into a more comfortable position the moment the exercise began, wasting movement.
“When you get a lot of coaching, you think you have to be so deep in your hips to be powerful,” Foresman said. “Just because he felt tension in his body didn’t mean that he was loaded. It just caused him to slow down.”
Foresman trained him to get into a comfortable, relaxed and upright position before starting exercises.
“It just teaches them you don’t have to give as much output as you think: 100% is 100%, and as much as we like to think that there’s 110% out there, there’s not. The competitiveness [within] that athlete is what brings the rest.”
Foresman was impressed by Zaitsev’s work ethic, noting that he would pick up in days things it took others weeks to learn. And although Zaitsev is outwardly soft-spoken, young Hawks defensemen have frequently described him as a helpful mentor behind the scenes.
Now it’s just about trying to elevate his on-ice performance back to the levels he reached during his 2016-to-2019 peak with the Maple Leafs.
“[I want to] be the best version of myself,” Zaitsev said.