It seems like a lot of people were wrong to doubt the strategy of trading down during the 2015 draft. That’s not to say that Travis Konecny wouldn’t also be a pleasure to have in a Leafs uniform right now, but the Leafs organization knew what they were doing when they had their eyes on Travis Dermott. He’s made the job to NHL regular, and either through merit or necessity it seems that we are going to have a very real conversation about whether Travis Dermott is a capable of being a top four defenseman on the Leafs next season.
The 2018-19 season was the first “full” season in the NHL for Travis Dermott. I mean, 64 NHL games and 0 AHL games says it was a full NHL season, but 18 games missed due to injury is bound to cause concern.
Injuries aside, and hopefully they are for a good long time, Dermott was a third pairing guy for essentially the entire season, as you’d expect for a player that previously had 37 games to his name and is behind Rielly, Gardiner, and Muzzin on the left side of the defense depth chart. In this role Dermott excelled, which often led for calls for him to be tested higher up in the lineup and replace defenders like Zaitsev and Hainsey, believing that Dermott could have improved those pairings. I’d argue it was worth exploring, but it was far from a guarantee. The opportunity for a bigger role should have come when Jake Gardiner was injured long term, but as fate would have it, that’s when Dermott’s injury also struck, and well, I guess we’ll have to see what next year brings for him.
Dermott played 45% of his 5v5 shifts with Igor Ozhiganov, and with Ozhiganov returning the KHL next season it seems that Dermott will have no choice but to get a new partner. The next highest even strength partners were Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey, so it really seems like Dermott will be starting from scratch in training camp with a new partner.
Stats and charts
Generally speaking Travis Dermott did pretty darn well, especially with Igor Ozhiganov as his most frequent partner. He’s wound up on the favourable side of most possession metrics, and that should warrant some consider for giving him more responsibility.
It’s important to note that it will mean a less sheltered existence for Dermott which will hurt those CA/60 and xGA/60 numbers. Dermott was most frequently played with the Kadri line, followed by the Par Lindholm line (remember when Par Lindholm was a thing?) Of the Leafs centers, Travis Dermott spent the least amount of time with John Tavares, and his line.
Depending on how attached Babcock is to the Muzzin/Zaitsev pairing, it would appear that Muzzin and Dermott might be worth a look as a future pairing, if Dermott is capable of moving over to the right side. It’s probably safe to say that we won’t be seeing Dermott with Justin Holl anytime soon, and for that matter we might not see Justin Holl on the Leafs again anytime soon. The small sample of numbers certainly don’t support trying Dermott with Rielly, and in fact they generally support that Dermott will be better off with someone completely new if he’s not playing with Jake Muzzin. That is assuming Dermott is ready for top four work. If the plan is to keep Dermott on the 3rd pairing, there is some hope that he could do well with Calle Rosen.
A couple of other things interesting about Dermott, are that he averaged almost two minutes less ice time on the road, compared to at home, definitely a sign of his sheltering. He also had less icetime against division opponents. Dermott’s icetime in the playoffs started off relatively low going from 12:51 to 15:41 back down to 11:51 over the first three games. His high point was 19:23 of icetime in Game 6, and interestingly enough Dermott played more in Leafs losses. He generally held his own before being on the ice for 3 goals against the deciding game, but we’ll put that on Jake Gardiner as per tradition.
What should we expect from Dermott this year? Like I said, his luck from last season leaves me to believe that we could see some regression this season, but the fact that he’s still only 21 could also see some growth counteract the regression. However, I hope to see him take some big steps in other areas. With Polak out, it wouldn’t surprise me if Dermott got some more minutes on the penalty kill, and he has the potential to be an injury replacement on the power play if needed, so he could see his role grow in that sense.
We could also see Dermott play well enough that he gets more time in the top four next year, especially if Hainsey can’t handle the top minutes anymore (if you could call what he did last season “handling the top minutes”). Dermott has some experience on the right side, so that flexibility could come in handy for him and the Leafs, although you’d prefer that he stay on the left side.
Additionally, here are some early season thoughts from Nick DeSouza on what Dermott’s ceiling may be:
While it’s hard not to get overexcited, I think we will have to continue being patient with Travis Dermott. For the past year, we have accepted him for what he is: a dominant overqualified third pairing defenseman. As a 21-year-old, this “sheltered” deployment has been a blessing in disguise, as he has continued developing his game against bottom-six competition.
Going forward, it looks like Babcock is going to slowly transition Dermott into a larger role on the team. There has been a small rise in Dermott’s minutes and a decrease in Ron Hainsey’s this season. As a result, we have seen Dermott and Rielly play together more than in the past, with Rielly playing on the right side. In addition, Babcock has a history of optimizing his lineups come playoff time and if Dermott continues playing the way he is, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of the Dermott/Rielly pair.
I think it’s safe to say we all underestimated Mike Babcock’s commitment to keeping Rielly and Hainsey together, and from the numbers above we can see that Rielly rarely played with Dermott and when it happened, it wasn’t great. Dermott did get his shot with Gardiner in the playoffs, as a recovering from injury third pairing that put Dermott on the right side of the ice after living on the left all season. This isn’t the best indicator of future success, so for optimism I suggest looking at those Muzzin and Dermott numbers.
If you look at Travis Dermott as a third pairing defender who spent most of his season with Igor Ozhiganov and nothing more than that, it’s hard not to give him top marks. He was a solid “A” guy and ideal third pairing defender. If you factor in the expectations of Dermott moving beyond the third pairing into the equation, well, I guess that means that Dermott deserves an overall score of a B+. As much as people will want to put his usage entirely on Mike Babcock, and the difficult that comes with trying to leapfrog the likes of Rielly, Muzzin, and Gardiner, there wasn’t a feeling that Dermott forced anyone’s hand to try him on the right side sooner. That might be a little harsh on Dermott, but judging him by expectations before the season, many thought he’d be a surefire top four defenseman at the close of the season.
Travis Dermott is going to play an even larger role now with the exit of Jake Gardiner, Ron Hainsey, and yes, Igor Ozhiganov. Essentially a top four role is his to lose, provided that he is interested in developing on the right side of the ice. He has a couple of years experience under Mike Babcock, and that familiarity should hopefully give him a bit more trust, especially when it’s far more likely that Gardiner and Hainsey’s replacements are going to come in the form of Toronto Marlies rather than external recruits.
Dermott’s salary is something that makes him a pretty safe bet for returning to the Leafs next season, although it’s also what will make him a player that Dubas is likely to receive the most calls on.
Assuming I’m wrong and Dermott is back in his third pairing role next season, it would be nice to see him with increased special teams usage. Less than 7% of Dermott’s icetime came on special teams, and of that only 8 minutes was on the power play. Dermott might be a solid replacement for Gardiner on the second unit, while he’s capable of eating minutes as well as anyone else on the penalty kill. If he remains a third pairing player, there’s no reason why he can’t be still be a top four defenseman when it comes to total time on ice.
Finally, it’s interesting to see who Dermott has thrived with. He did well with Ozhiganov. He did well with Muzzin. He did well with Rosen. The trend is that Travis Dermott needs a partner with more of a defense first style than he has, though his regular season numbers with Jake Gardiner would challenge that I suppose. Still I wouldn’t be surprised if Dermott’s road to the top four is entirely reliant on building chemistry with Jake Muzzin.