The Toronto Maple Leafs’ defenseman Travis Dermott is going to be an NHL star. That, in English grammar terminology, is a declarative sentence. And, I am declaring it up front.
The Maple Leafs drafted Dermott in the second round, 34th overall, in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. Although some might wonder what impact players remain that low in the draft, when you’re talking defensemen, the answer might be many. Finding an elite defenseman in the draft takes both luck and skill. For example, new team member Jake Muzzin was picked during, of all things, the fifth round.
Dermott and Muzzin are far from alone. Kris Letang? Third round. Duncan Keith? Second round. Alexander Edler? Third round. You get the picture. And, given the way Dermott has progressed and the skillset he has shown on each step of his rise to the NHL, he has every chance of joining this elite group of defensemen.
Dermott was Kyle Dubas’ second ever NHL draft pick (2015) after Dubas became general manager of the Maple Leafs. His first pick was Mitch Marner at number four. It was a good draft. Dubas traded down twice so he could pick Dermott with the team’s second pick. Some fans wondered if Dermott were that good, or if he only benefited from playing with Edmonton Oilers’ star Connor McDavid, current teammate Connor Brown, or the Chicago Blackhawks’ rising star Dylan Strome.
Hockey people knew Dermott was smart, but believed he didn’t have the speed or offensive skills to become a valuable NHL prospect. Dubas was correct in his assessment: others were wrong.
Following his junior career, Dermott joined the AHL Toronto Marlies for their 2016 playoff run, but only played one post-season game. The next season, he won a top-four role with the Marlies, but his numbers were so-so. He scored only five goals and 24 points in 59 games that season. Still, during those first seasons with the Marlies, Dermott worked on his skating, defensive zone play, and on the penalty kill.
Things changed dramatically during the 2017-18 season. The 20-year-old Dermott suddenly hit the spotlight. He began the season quickly with the Marlies and became their best defender, as well as a mentor to 18-year-old Timothy Liljegren on the team’s first defensive pairing. His stellar play led to a January call up to the Maple Leafs.
Dermott exploded into the NHL on Jan. 6, 2018. From his first game on, he has showed his speed, confidence, and enthusiasm. That’s everything you want in a young player.
Dermott has adjusted well to the differences between the AHL and the NHL. The biggest difference he sees is the time he has to hold the puck. NHL opponents are on him more quickly. However, because he has quick hands and feet and an ability to think the game at a fast pace, it hasn’t taken him long to adjust.
What’s Ahead for Dermott?
Looking ahead, if Jake Gardiner stays with the team he could be a good partner for Dermott. Although some see an eventual Dermott and Rielly partnership, Dermott enjoys playing with Gardiner. “Making plays with Jake is pretty fun,” he said. “He kind of thinks the game the same way as me. He makes great offensive first passes. That’s something I aspire to be like. So, instead of watching him from the bench, being out there with him is a different step for me.”
Although both Dermott and Gardiner are offensive defenseman, they have different skills. Dermott will score more goals than Gardiner — Gardiner’s body of work suggests he’s an assist guy. Dermott has four goals and 12 assists this season, and Gardiner has two goals and 25 assists. However, both are good skaters, good passers, and break the puck out well.
If neither Rielly nor Gardiner become Dermott’s partner, two Marlies’ defensemen – Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman – are likely ready to join the Maple Leafs next season. The team’s future defense looks promising.
The Possibility of Switching Sides
Dermott won’t play on a third pairing for long. Whenever he plays on the top four, it’s clear he belongs. Because he’s a great skater, passer, and smart playmaker, he’s effective and seems capable of doing everything well.
If Dermott becomes the elite defenseman I believe he will, the team might have lucked into another great player. If so, with Rielly, the Maple Leafs will have two of the best left-side defensemen in the NHL.
Related: Grading the Maple Leafs’ Backend
Even better, moving Dermott to the right side opens a world of possibilities. That possibility is attractive because, as noted, both Borgman and Rosen have more upside than any of the team’s current right-side defensemen. One solution to the team’s lefty-righty issues would be to switch either Dermott or Rielly to the right side and recall one of the two Marlie defensemen.
So far Rielly has been uncomfortable on the right side and has asked to go back on the left. But Dermott is a different story. What does Dermott think about that option? He seems amenable. In fact, he suggested that the right side offered a number of different options.
“You’ve got to think the game a little differently. But I don’t hate it.”
Such an attitude is yet another Dermott positive. Little seems to have rattled him during his two seasons with the team — he’s both coachable and adaptive to whatever Mike Babcock thinks helps the team.
Life Since Muzzin
Since Muzzin arrived, Babcock has been constantly experimenting with the team’s blue line. Against the Colorado Avalanche, he even played five left-handed shots and only one righty. Rielly was on the left side, with Hainsey on the right. Muzzin skated with right-handed Zaitsev on the second pairing, and Gardiner dropped to the third pair on the left side, pushing lefty Dermott to the right.
Muzzin gives the team both more depth and more options. He allows Babcock to move the defense around until he finds what works best, without worrying about any decline in play. Babcock noted how Muzzin has relaxed his coaching, “I think we’re way deeper through six. So you’re not as paranoid about who is on the ice and when they are out there.”
Babcock suggested to the media: “You guys (media) spend a lot of time on these pairings. That’s good though. Gives you something to do.” He added, “But I don’t know if (these pairings) are going to go on for long.” That’s because Babcock believes Hainsey, Muzzin, and Gardiner can play with anyone, and the rest can be figured out over time.
The Remainder of the Season
If the team moves Zaitsev, and there are rumors he might be traded, the path is clearer for Dermott to move to the top four. Whatever happens, things will change either this season or next. Dermott is too good for the plan to unfold another way. Simply stated, he’s going to be a star.
Right now, he’s a good bet to become a top-pairing defenseman, and possibly even an elite #1. Dermott’s presence will, in time, make the Maple Leafs a vastly improved team. The forwards are strong. The goaltending is excellent. The only thing left is to tweak the defense, and Dermott provides that opportunity.