After failing to make the round of 16 for the first time since 2016, it’s clear that the Toronto Maple Leafs are determined to shake things up this offseason. The first shoe already dropped with speedy winger Kasperi Kapanen shipped off to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for a bag of goodies, and there’s no doubt that more moves are coming.
Perhaps the most intriguing of those rumored moves involves St. Louis Blues defenceman Alex Pietrangelo and his pending foray into free agency. If the Maple Leafs were to sign Pietrangelo and fork over the mountains of cash he’ll surely command, they’d be required to shed a significant amount of cap space. Obviously, the cap-strapped Leafs don’t have enough room for Pietrangelo as is, so there would be some pretty big moves to clear space.
The most likely names to go include goaltender Frederik Andersen, who we already know has been shopped; Andreas Johnsson, whose skillset has become somewhat redundant; and Pierre Engvall, whose $1.25 million cap hit is a bit rich for a fourth-liner. But at a time like this for the Leafs, almost no one is safe. Secondary players like Alexander Kerfoot and Justin Holl could easily be moved out for the right price, and even Morgan Rielly – the longest-serving Maple Leaf – has been discussed as a potential trade chip.
But despite all the chatter, there is one player that the Leafs simply can’t afford to let go of this offseason: 23-year-old blueliner Travis Dermott. If Toronto were to part ways with him now, they would be making a huge mistake.
Dermott Is the Maple Leafs’ Most Underrated Defenceman
The 2019-20 season was a strange one for obvious reasons, but it was particularly difficult for Dermott. In May of last year, the Leafs blueliner underwent shoulder surgery, putting him on the shelf for nearly six months. The young defenceman missed training camp and the first month of the season, putting him behind the eight ball during a very important developmental year.
There was talk all year about how Dermott would be expected to take on a bigger role for the Maple Leafs coming into his third NHL season, and I even wrote about how the team would have been wise to lock him up long-term. Understandably, he got off to a slow start after coming back from surgery, averaging just 14:34 of ice time in his first 31 games. With the additions of Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci plus the emergence of Holl as a shutdown defender, Dermott was pushed down the Leafs’ depth chart and relegated once again to third-pairing duty.
However, Dermott’s time to shine eventually came after Jake Muzzin went down with a foot injury in late December. Over a 25-game span from Jan. 8 until the end of the season, Dermott averaged 20:43 of ice time per game, cementing himself as a legitimate top-four option under head coach Sheldon Keefe. He earned the trust of his coach particularly at 5-on-5, playing over 18 minutes per night, on par with Muzzin, Barrie, and Holl to lead the team’s defence down the stretch.
Dermott finished the season second on the Maple Leafs’ defence in expected goals for (xGF%) at 53.26 percent and first in on-ice goals for (GF%) at 55.26 percent. He’s always had impressive underlying numbers, but the results finally came through for Dermott.
In fact, his on-ice impacts were so good that he finished 23rd (!) among all defencemen in the league according to Evolving Hockey‘s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) model, and that’s after missing 14 games due to injury. The only other Leafs defenceman that was even close was Muzzin at 10.1 GAR, which should give you an indication of just how impactful and important Dermott was for Toronto, especially as they dealt with several injuries to their top defenders.
Now I don’t necessarily believe that Dermott is actually a top-25 defenceman in the NHL, but I do believe that he’s more than capable of top-four minutes, and he proved that in the most important games of the season. I also believe that if the Leafs do not land Pietrangelo or another big name defenceman, they would actually be fine with Dermott next to Rielly on their second pair – that’s how good he is.
Dermott’s Comparables Are Promising
The idea to write this piece was actually inspired by a Tweet I saw a couple of weeks ago from Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti), which reminded me of a couple of things. One, Dermott is really good and probably underappreciated; and two, we sometimes have to be a bit more patient with defencemen than we’d like.
Player A is Dermott. Player B is Vegas Golden Knights defenceman Nate Schmidt. While Schmidt may not be the biggest star or sexiest name out there, he is a heck of a player, which is why he’s led the Golden Knights’ defence in ice time over the last three seasons.
The main difference between the two players is probably the point production, although the points never really came for Schmidt until his age 26 season when he joined Vegas. During his time with the Washington Capitals, Schmidt was primarily a bottom-pairing defenceman, and his point totals (16, 17) reflected that. Similarly, Dermott has never been a huge offensive contributor during his time with the Leafs (his career-high is just 17 points), but with more opportunity, the points would likely come – as they have for Schmidt, who’s now a consistent 30-40 point man.
There’s obviously no guarantee that Dermott will become the next Schmidt, but by that same token, there is plenty of reason to believe that he has a lot more to give. He’s the kind of player that Maple Leafs management of old would give up on too soon, only to see him flourish on another team. Remember Alex Steen? Or how about Anton Stralman? Toronto can’t afford to throw away promising young talent yet again.
Dermott Will Outperform His Next Contract
Here’s a weird take for you: it’s actually a good thing that Dermott has struggled to put up points so far in his career.
But I thought points were a good thing – how could that be?
Of course, offensive production is always a positive, but it’s not the only thing that makes a defenceman effective, as Dermott has proven. We do know, however, that point production is a crucial part of contract negotiations, and Dermott’s relative lack of offensive firepower will only serve to keep his next contract down. For a team like the Leafs, that’s always a plus.
Going back to my piece on Dermott last summer, I actually projected him to receive a pretty rich contract at an average annual value (AAV) of $4 million over six or seven years. Using comparables around the league, my logic was that Dermott had shown flashes of top-four (or even top-pair) ability, so the Leafs would be wise to lock him up on the cheap before his inevitable breakout. $4 million is obviously not cheap, but that’s the going rate around the league for good, young defencemen on long-term deals.
It’s now a year later and a lot has changed. Dermott, of course, has not yet signed an extension and is still a restricted free agent (RFA). He had a promising season but the Maple Leafs are in a much more difficult financial situation compared to a year ago thanks to both the Mitch Marner contract and the league’s flat salary cap. What that likely means for Dermott is less money on a short-term deal.
Evolving Hockey projects the Newmarket, Ont., native to earn about $1.8 million on a two-year contract this offseason, which somehow sounds both fair and like a complete steal for the Leafs. Considering that Dermott was arguably one of Toronto’s best defencemen last season and is just now entering his prime, there is no way that he should be worth less than $2 million dollars – but here we are.
It’s a huge reason why the Maple Leafs must hold onto Dermott no matter what they do this offseason: he’s going to provide excess value for a team that sorely needs big performances from their lesser-paid players. You’ve heard about the team’s need to get value from guys on entry-level contracts like Nick Robertson and Rasmus Sandin over the coming years. Well, Dermott won’t be making much more than them, but he projects to perform as at least a top-four defender over the next five or six seasons.
It’s the kind of situation that’s almost too good to be true for the Leafs’ front office. They just have to avoid shooting themselves in the foot.
Player stats from Natural Stat Trick