Whether it’s been Mike Babcock or Sheldon Keefe putting together the lineup card, the Maple Leafs have struggled to find the right mix on the blue line for most of the season. Morgan Rielly has taken a predictable step back from his 72 point performance last season, Tyson Barrie’s Leafs tenure began so poorly that he was prepared to ask for a trade before the coaching change in late November, and now injuries have forced the Leafs to elevate their depth defensemen into larger roles than they likely had planned for them this season.
Travis Dermott is in his third NHL season and he has spent practically that entire time on the left side of Toronto’s third defensive pairing putting up strong underlying numbers in a sheltered role. He played 37 games in his rookie season, leading regular Leafs defensemen with a 54.8 CF% and a 55.1 xGF%. Dermott also led Leafs blue liners in GF% as a rookie, with his team outscoring opponents 28-13 (68.3%) with him on the ice at 5v5. Those positive numbers were the result of Dermott displaying plenty of the skills that teams look for in a modern NHL defenseman: fantastic edges and quick feet that allowed him to elude forecheckers with ease, poise with the puck on his stick and the vision to lead a breakout, as well as the ability to hold a tight gap and step up in the neutral zone to kill opposing rushes before they could get started. He carried all that over to his second season, again leading Leafs defensemen with a 54.5 CF% and coming out on the positive side of the expected goals split but an unfortunate shoulder injury cut his season to just 64 games and robbed him of an opportunity to show he could play a larger role while the Leafs were also without Jake Gardiner – a staple in their top 4 – for an extended period of time.
Now in the final months of his entry level contract, Dermott is finally getting that chance to play consistent top four minutes on the Leafs blue line while Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly are both out with injuries.
It was 5 games ago against Winnipeg that Keefe elevated Dermott to a pairing with Justin Holl and began using them as his top unit at even strength. It’s been a bit of a mixed bag for Dermott so far as he learns that stepping up in the neutral zone against players like Mark Scheifele or Jonathan Huberdeau is a bit more dangerous than it is against the third liners he’s used to facing, but he’s done a better job picking his spots in the last couple of games. He’s played more than any other defenseman at 5v5 over this 5 game stretch and has produced strong underlying numbers despite the Leafs being outscored 6-2 in those minutes. The Leafs have controlled the majority of the shot attempts, scoring chances, and high danger chances when Dermott has been on the ice in the last 5 games but it hasn’t translated to the scoreboard due to breakdowns in big spots and goaltending that hasn’t been up to par with what the Leafs have gotten for the last three seasons.
To get a better idea of how Dermott has performed from game to game, let’s look at his on-ice 5v5 results from each matchup:
|1||Winnipeg (Jan. 8)||18:00||10/17||37.04%||6/8||42.86%||2/1||66.67%||0/1||57.64%|
|2||Florida (Jan. 12)||18:24||30/9||76.92%||18/5||78.26%||8/4||66.67%||2/2||75.54%|
|3||New Jersey (Jan. 14)||17:48||16/22||42.11%||8/11||42.11%||3/5||37.50%||0/2||30.72%|
|4||Calgary (Jan. 16)||17:01||17/13||56.67%||9/8||52.94%||4/2||66.67%||0/0||62.63%|
|5||Chicago (Jan. 18)||19:28||15/16||48.39%||9/9||50.0%||2/4||33.33%||0/1||41.38%|
Dermott fared decently against the Jets, giving up a lot of shot attempts but keeping most of the opportunities to the outside as Winnipeg generated just 1 high danger scoring chance with Dermott on the ice. The Florida game was a disaster early so score effects likely have a lot to do with it, but Dermott posted strong shot share and scoring chance numbers in an 8-4 loss. The game against the Devils was his roughest outing, allowing 2 goals against on 16 total scoring chances generated while he was out there. He had a strong bounce back game against Calgary as the Leafs got goalied by David Rittich and then followed that up with a mediocre performance against Chicago where many of his teammates looked like they had started their bye week early.
Along with increased ice time at even strength, Dermott is also seeing regular minutes on the penalty kill for the first time in his career. In the last 5 games the Leafs have killed 9 of 11 power play opportunities against them – about a league average success rate – with Dermott getting time on the second unit.
Overall, it’s been a bit of an up and down ride through Dermott’s first 5 games in a top four role but that could also be said of the Leafs team as a whole over that stretch. He’s still generating mostly strong underlying numbers while displaying all the tools that have made him so effective to this point in his career, like outstanding foot speed and ability to recover in transition:
He’s even started to show a bit more physical play in his third season:
Dermott has shown that he has the skill set to handle difficult minutes in the NHL but he’s still a relatively inexperienced defenseman who will improve his decision making as he spends more time defending against the best players opposing teams have to offer. Jake Muzzin’s impending return will help to ease the burden Dermott’s surgically repaired shoulder is currently carrying but with Morgan Rielly out for the better part of the rest of the regular season, Dermott should continue to have more responsibility than he saw in his first 130 or so NHL games.
With the Leafs currently on the outside looking in at the playoffs, he and the rest of Toronto’s defensive unit will have no choice but to step up during the stretch drive if the Leafs are going to have a chance to exorcise their postseason demons. It’s a tall order but Travis Dermott has the tools to be an impact player for the Maple Leafs and there’s no better time than now to show it.
Statistics from NaturalStatTrick.com
Follow @_nickrichard on Twitter