Maple Leafs’ Travis Dermott: What’s His Potential?

The Toronto Maple Leafs selected Travis Dermott in the second round, 34th overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. Although that’s a relatively low draft pick, it isn’t unusual for quality NHL defensemen to emerge from the lower rounds. For example, the Maple Leafs’ Jake Muzzin was picked during the fifth round.

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Prior to being drafted by the Maple Leafs, Dermott was a standout player for the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters, where he played with Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid, former teammate Connor Brown (who’s now playing with the Ottawa Senators), and Chicago Blackhawks’ emerging star Dylan Strome.

Following his junior career, Dermott joined the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies for the team’s 2016 playoff run, but only played one postseason game. In 2016-17, he won a top-four role with the Marlies, but his numbers were so-so. He scored only five goals, 19 assists (for 24 points) in 59 games. However, as a development season, it was invaluable. Dermott worked on his skating, defensive zone play, and on the penalty kill.

Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby Toronto Maple Leafs Travis Dermott
Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby is knocked down by Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Travis Dermott (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Then came the 2017-18 season, and Dermott suddenly hit the spotlight. He began the season quickly and became the Marlies’ best defender, as well as a mentor to young Timothy Liljegren on the team’s first defensive pairing. His stellar play led to a Jan. 2018 call up to the Maple Leafs.

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Dermott’s Injured Shoulder

Last season, although Dermott averaged just 17:18 of ice time per game, the now 22-year-old set career highs in goals (4), assists (13) and shots (98). Then he injured his shoulder. Dermott missed 14 games in March 2019 with the injury. When he came back to the lineup, he simply wasn’t the same.

It was decided that Dermott would have shoulder surgery in May 2019. That surgery was expected to keep him sidelined for a minimum of six months. At that time, it was hoped that he could return in six months, which would be in mid-November. However, his recovery was a little ahead of schedule and he “only” missed training camp and 13 regular-season games.

Dermott Is Happy to Be Playing with Holl

When Dermott returned this season, he was partnered with his friend Justin Holl. So far, although the number of games has been small, that partnership is working well. Dermott suggests that Holl has helped him get back into the flow of the game.

Justin Holl Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Justin Holl (54) passes the puck against the Buffalo Sabres at Ricoh Coliseum. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Dermott thankfully noted, “Hollsy has been taking care of me. He’s been great for me, giving me the confidence to come out here and play my game and not worry about a D-partner that’s not playing as well as I’d like him to.”

Dermott’s comment is interesting, and I’m thinking that he’s hinting about his time with last season’s partner Igor Ozhiganov, who’s now back playing in the KHL. Dermott did say that communication with the Russian defenseman was sometimes difficult.

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Dermott added that Holl was playing well and that he was “playing catch-up, trying to keep up with him and he’s setting a great benchmark for me to come back to and get my feet under me.”

Dermott finds working with Holl easy because of their shared history of being teammates for two full seasons with the Toronto Marlies. In fact, Dermott and Holl first became Maple Leafs’ partners when Holl played his first NHL game on Jan. 31, 2018. Interestingly, both players scored their first NHL goals in that game.

Travis Dermott #23 of the Toronto Maple Leafs
Travis Dermott #23 of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Dermott added, “Hollsy and I have been buddies for a while now. I have a good feel of what he’s going to do. I’ve seen him go back for pucks a million times already, so I have a pretty good feel, better than the forechecker, of what he’s going to do. We just keep learning from each other like we have been and I think it can only be a positive.”

Dermott’s Play this Season

During the game on Nov. 9 against the Philadelphia Flyers, Dermott scored his first goal of the season in the 3-2 shootout loss. Between periods, Hockey Night in Canada commentator Kelly Hrudey showed a video montage showing what Hrudey believed was Dermott’s growing confidence throughout the game. I have no disagreement with that perspective.

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Dermott’s goal was his first point since his return from injury five games ago. Most commentators agree Dermott’s smooth skating and high hockey IQ will help to make him a top-four guy one day in the near future. For now, Babcock seems pleased with the success that the pairing of Holl and Dermott have had – at least offensively.

Babcock noted, “If you’ve got skill to support it, you can make plays on the offensive blueline and get it by good shot-blockers and get it to the net. Those are all skills he (Dermott) has.”

Then, Babcock offered an interesting insight that highlights what he believes Dermott’s potential might become. He said, “As a young player, (he’s) no different than [Morgan Rielly] when Mo was coming up, it’s also figuring out how to play in your own zone so it’s not going in. I think you saw his edges and his puck play last game. The big thing is sorting it out in the D-zone. When we analyze the game at the end, were you involved in scoring chances for or against? How does the math add up? Simple.”

Maple Leafs defenceman Travis Dermott
Maple Leafs defenceman Travis Dermott (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

That’s high praise for the young defenseman. It also suggests that the Maple Leafs are developing Dermott in the same way they developed Rielly. That is, Babcock controlled Rielly’s ice time and deployment for two seasons before giving him the free reign he now experiences. The recent criticisms of Babcock as a coach aside, he obviously did good work with Rielly – who’s now poised to be a Norris Trophy candidate for seasons to come.

Can Dermott Become an NHL star?

So, to answer the question “Can Dermott become an NHL star?” it might be more correct to ask “When will he become an NHL star?” Already Dermott has shown the physical skills – quick hands and good skating – and the mental skills – the ability to think the game at a fast pace – that it takes to move forward.

I, for one, hope he isn’t injured again soon. It will be fun to see him move along his career path.