Travis Dermott recently signed a one-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team that drafted him in the second round of the NHL’s 2015 entry draft. Now that Dermott has signed, where does play?
It’s not an automatic that he’ll gain more minutes due to the exits of Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci. When training camp for the 2021 season gets started, Dermott will be in a battle for the spot he wants, number four on the Leafs’ blue line.
Dermott’s performance in the 2019/20 season, coupled with newly acquired defensemen TJ Brodie, Mikko Lehtonen, and Zach Bogosian, suggests to me his battle will be for the fifth or sixth spot. Depending on how it goes, a spot as the seventh defenseman is a real possibility.
What Does the Best Version of Dermott Look Like?
Dermott has played 157 regular season games over the span of three seasons with the Maple Leafs. He impressed Leafs Nation in the 37 games played in his first season after being called up from the Leafs farm team, the Toronto Marlies. He had 13 points and was a plus 16.
Even before that first season was completed, some wondered if the Leafs got as lucky as the Chicago Blackhawks did in 2002 when they drafted Duncan Keith in the second round, or as fortunate as the Pittsburgh Penguins when they drafted Kris Letang in the third round.
In that first season, references were made to the Leafs’ record with Dermott in the line-up. The Leafs were outscoring their opponents by a ratio of more than 2:1 when he was on the ice. Some called Dermott a river boat gambler. He played a high-paced game where both teams ended up getting a lot of shots while he was on the ice.
Here’s the thing, though, his second season wasn’t as impressive as his first. What if in the first 37 games of his career Dermott presented the best version of himself, and it doesn’t get any better than that?
It Takes Time for a Player to Recover from an Injury
Dermott injured his shoulder in February of his second season playing defense for the Maple Leafs. He was checked from behind after he had crossed the centerline and dumped the puck into the offensive zone corner. He fell awkwardly and as he did his left shoulder made contact with the boards.
While the contact between Dermott’s shoulder and the boards didn’t look nasty, it was immediately obvious to all watching that the player was in pain. For those who have had a shoulder pop out of its socket, you know for certain what’s happened, and it’s not good.
The desire to play the game you love has a way of convincing you you’re ready to go. Dermott missed 14 regular season games, returned for his team’s last five games and the playoffs. It was the series between Toronto and Boston where the Leafs were eliminated by the Bruins for the second consecutive time in game seven of the first round.
Sixteen days after being eliminated by the Bruins the Maple Leafs announced that Dermott was scheduled for shoulder surgery. The prognosis proved accurate; Dermott missed training for the 2019/20 season plus the first 13 regular season games.
When the coronavirus forced the NHL to pause the 2019/20 regular season Dermott had played 56 games in his third season with the Leafs.
Post-Surgery Review of Dermott’s 2019/20 Season
Personally, my impression of Dermott’s 2019/20 regular season plus the qualifying round games he played was not great. I agreed with comments Ray Ferraro made during his regular guest appearance on TSN’s Overview show that aired on October 23rd 2020, the day the Leafs announced they’d signed Dermott to a one-year contract worth $874,125.
“I liked his game more a couple of years ago. Once he got hurt, he didn’t come back with the same vigor to his game… I don’t know if he was tentative or if he was unsure…He didn’t rush the puck. He wasn’t in the play. He wasn’t physical.”
Ferraro went on to explain the difference he saw when comparing Dermott’s seasons before and after his shoulder surgery.
“There was always something happening around him…He lost that a bit…I do think he can be a number four but there’s some growth that’s gotta happen, again.”
In the 56 games Dermott played in 2019/20 regular season his 11 points were the lowest in his three seasons with the Leafs, including his first when he had played just 37 games. However, his 2019/20 plus 14 rating was significantly better than the minus 5 he had in the 64 games he played the previous year, his second season in the NHL.
I’m not a huge follower of advanced statistics so I trust Forbes contributor Jordan Horrobin when he reported in his October 26th 2020 column that amongst Toronto’s top-eight defensemen in even strength minutes, Dermott ranked eighth in shots attempts, seventh in points per time on-ice, seventh in scoring chances percentage, and fifth in expected goals based on the quality of his shots.
Is Dermott’s Best Version of Himself Something Leafs Nation Hasn’t Seen, Yet?
During the TSN Overdrive show that aired the day Dermott signed, former Maple Leafs player, now hockey analyst, Mike Johnson was part of the group that asked Ferraro questions about the young defenseman.
Johnson made a comparison between Dermott and the Leafs newly signed free agent defenseman TJ Brodie. He noted they are left shot guys who can play the right-side, and added that Dermott’s body type and style are similar to Brodie. Johnson asked Ferraro if it will help Dermott to watch Brodie, to see first-hand how he can play the game.
Ferraro’s response acknowledged it could happen. There was a caveat, though, is Dermott able to translate what he sees into his play? As much as fans like to think their home team players will get better each year, it doesn’t happen for everybody.
“Yeah, he’s got a little bit of a template in Brodie. Part of it would become confidence. Part of it would be having a more defined roadmap for what he’s trying to be. Right now he seems…like a tweener. I can’t quite make up my mind what he’s supposed to be…I don’t have any doubt he’s an NHL player. Can he be a four?”
After Ferraro asked if Dermott can be a four, he mentioned another free agent the Leafs signed, Mikko Lehtenon. He’s a player Ferraro has seen a few times at the world championships, and thinks is pretty good.
The point Ferraro made, and I agree, is that the Leafs’ roster of NHL defensemen creates a very competitive situation for Dermott. The top three are Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and Brodie. After training camp and when the 2021 season begins, where will Dermott rank compared to Mikko Lehtonen, Zach Bogosian, and Justin Holl?
NHL.com staff writer Mike Zeisberger quoted Dermott in his article about the one-year contract he signed with the Maple Leafs.
“It’s exciting. I mean, it’s like a competition, so we’ll see how camp goes. Can’t wait to get started. We’re going to do that much better with that much more competition. It’s going to get guys to push each other, and force guys to be their best version of themselves.”
Leafs Nation expect Dermott to do everything he can to be the best version of himself. Dermott knows that’s what it will take to secure the number four spot on the Leafs defense, and keep him from being slotted lower in the line-up. The competition will be tough. The desire to be number four could easily turn into accepting a spot as number six or seven.
Dermott Expects Tough Competition for Maple Leafs Number Four Defenseman
Competition in any marketplace is good for the consumer and good for business. Maple Leafs’ GM Kyle Dubas has done well to create competition among the bottom six forwards and the four, five, and six spots on defense. It will provide Leafs Nation with good on-ice entertainment that should extend well beyond the first round of the playoffs. That’s good for business.
Dermott is well aware of what Dubas has done. In Zeisberger’s article, he reported a second quote from Dermott that speaks to the competition he expects when training camp begins.
“I don’t expect anything less than those guys biting at my heels to get in, and then try to steal my job. My job is to come in and play my game and do exactly what they want me to do. So it’s just coming in and getting that done, and being consistent with it.”
It sounds to me that Dermott figures the number four spot on the Leafs blue line is his to lose. Can that off-ice confidence transfer to the ice? Does the off-ice confidence expose the roadmap he’s using to prepare for training camp and the season ahead? Will he step onto the ice and let it be known to everyone concerned, everyone who’s watching, that he’s the Leafs’ number four on the blue line?
By the time training camp gets started 20 months will have passed since Dermott had his shoulder surgically repaired. The injury should be behind him. Dermott himself, and everyone else, have good reason to believe he will return to making things happen around him.
Here’s betting that Dermott’s vigor and boldness will return. He’ll rush the puck, again. He’ll be in the play. He will show that he has grown since we first saw him appear. And maybe, just maybe, people will wonder once more if in the 2015 NHL entry draft the Leafs got as lucky as the Chicago Blackhawks did when they drafted Duncan Keith or as fortunate as the Pittsburgh Penguins when they drafted Kris Letang.
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