It’s no secret that the injury bug has plagued the Toronto Maple Leafs for the entire season. With only 15 games remaining, the Maple Leafs have yet to ice their full-strength lineup once in 2019-20.
The biggest issue with a lot of the Maple Leafs’ injuries is that they aren’t all injuries to depth players. There has been a wealth of top and mid-line talent injured throughout the season.
John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Zach Hyman, Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Ilya Mikheyev, Andreas Johnsson, Travis Dermott, Cody Ceci, and Alex Kerfoot have all missed at least five games, with the majority missing 10 or more. In particular, on defence, these are all players that play 20-plus minutes per night. Those players aren’t easy to replace.
The most recent injury dealt to the Maple Leafs was their rugged defender Muzzin, one game after he signed a four-year contract extension. Muzzin broke his hand blocking a shot from Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman.
With the Maple Leafs’ defence already missing Rielly, that left the onus on third pair defenceman Dermott to step up and play first-pair minutes.
Dermott Consistently Improves Throughout Season
I want to break down Dermott’s play this season into three parts. In the first part, I want to discuss is the first 23 games of the season, when Babcock was still the coach. Of those 23 games, Dermott had played in only 10 as he was coming back from shoulder surgery during the summer.
In those ten games, Dermott, who averaged only 12 minutes of 5v5 ice time per game, had an on-ice 5v5 Expected Goals For Percentage (xGF%) of 48.59%. That was not good. Typically, you want all of your players over 50%. The best players on good teams will usually come in around 52-54%. This was the third-best rate on the team up to this point, behind only Rielly and Ceci.
Despite the mediocre expected goals numbers, the Maple Leafs outscored opponents 8-4 with Dermott on the ice during this time. This was mostly a testament to how incredible goaltender Frederik Andersen was during this time, however, as he had an outstanding 5v5 save percentage of 0.943 over that stretch.
The moral is, Dermott’s play (and frankly, the Maple Leafs as a whole) left much to be desired during Babcock’s tenure this season. When Sheldon Keefe was appointed the head coach, the Maple Leafs seemingly found new life, and their results improved drastically.
From when Keefe took over as coach until when Muzzin was injured on Feb. 25, Dermott averaged 16 minutes of ice time per night at 5v5, bouncing between the second and third pair as necessary, given the injuries to both Rielly and Muzzin in January.
In that time, Dermott has posted a 5v5 xGF% of 52.44, virtually tied with Tyson Barrie (52.49% over that stretch) for the third-best mark on the team over that period. The Maple Leafs also outscored opponents 31-28 in that stretch.
When Muzzin broke his hand on Feb. 25, Dermott was the only regular Maple Leafs’ defenceman who played the left side. Rasmus Sandin was still as green as ever in the NHL, and Martin Marincin is a seventh defenceman who has split time with both the Maple Leafs and the Marlies throughout the season.
With a Dermott-Justin Holl top pair essentially set in stone given their prior experience playing together with the Marlies, the team needed Dermott to elevate his game in a big way.
In the games since Muzzin was injured, Dermott has averaged almost 19 minutes of 5v5 ice time per game, playing against top competition. In those games, the Maple Leafs have outscored opposition 4-1 when he was on the ice, and he has a staggering 5v5 xGF% of 58.62%.
The second best 5v5 xGF% mark on the team during that time? Holl, his usual partner, who sits at 51.99%. A welcome surprise to the Maple Leafs’ management that Dermott can handle (albeit in a small sample size) top-pairing minutes and competition.
Maple Leafs’ Logjam at Left Defence
With Rielly, Muzzin, and Sandin all signed to contracts for at least the next two years, one wonders what spots are left for Dermott to play next year? Things are tricky, and I think it is totally possible that he gets packaged in a trade for a right-handed defenceman at or near the NHL Draft.
With the salary cap projected to be anywhere from $84 million to $88.2 million next season, the Maple Leafs should have sufficient cap space to either pursue pending free agents or acquire salary in a trade.
This is the only situation in which I can imagine Dermott gets traded. I doubt the Maple Leafs, who are a team trying to compete for a Stanley Cup, want to trade NHL calibre players for picks and prospects.
The other option is that they try to move play Dermott to the right side, similar to what they have done with Ron Hainsey for the past few years. He has played an occasional game on the right side before, but not enough to form much of a solid opinion on how well he can play there full time.
In the event that management wishes to try that, it would likely be beneficial to avoid signing Dermott to a long-term contract, unless they plan to let Rielly walk away two years from now (which I doubt).
If the Maple Leafs are unable to fill out their right defence spot via free agency or through a trade, a one-year bridge deal for Dermott in which he plays the right side would be a good bet. If things don’t work out, he can likely play on the third pair comfortably and then be exposed in the expansion draft to Seattle.
Either way, the Maple Leafs have options as to what to do with Dermott in the offseason. It’s just a matter of who is available at right defence.