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Travis Dermott is the defensive domino

With the Leafs recent addition of Mikko Lehtonen to their organization we are once again heading down the rabbit hole of trying to figure out what exactly is happening with the Leafs blueline.

Status Left Side Right Side
NHL Defensemen Morgan Rielly Justin Holl
Jake Muzzin
Travis Dermott
Probable NHL Defensemen Rasmus Sandin Timothy Liljegren
Mikko Lehtonen
Could Push for a NHL Job Martin Marincin
Teemu Kivihalme
Calle Rosen
Likely Departing in Free Agency Kevin Gravel Tyson Barrie
Cody Ceci
Defensemen who play both sides in Italics

None of that is particularly inspiring and certainly makes you long for further upgrades, but between the NHL defensemen and Probable NHL defensemen you’ve got a reasonable top seven, with three usable depth guys waiting on the Marlies assuming they don’t get claimed off of waivers.

On the left side, the top two slots inspire a lot of confidence, on the right side, I think if Holl and Liljegren occupied the bottom two slots, no one would bat an eye. Lehtonen as the 7th guy makes a lot of sense, assuming he’s ready and we’re not just over hyping him because he’s new, and that leaves the interesting situation of looking at what to do with Dermott and Sandin, and given that Sandin is more comfortable on the left, it makes sense to develop him on the left, and there’s probably a desire to shelter him at first, he makes the most sense as the 3rd pairing left side guy. That leaves us with Dermott. Can Dermott play on his wrong side in a top pairing?

Dermott vs. Elite Competition

Using PuckIQ’s approach of grouping players into Elite, Middle, and Gritensity to classify the quality of competition, Travis Dermott saw the sixth highest amount of icetime against elite competition so far this season out of the Leafs defensemen. Granted he missed some games, but when you look at it as a percentage of his icetime, Dermott remains in 6th, with Marincin trusted against tough competition more frequently than Dermott.

Name GP EVTOI CTOI% CF/60 CA/60 CF% DFF/60 DFA/60 DFF% GF%
Justin Holl 68 388.53 35.87 50.19 57.91 46.40 41.42 42.33 49.50 48.00
Jake Muzzin 53 334.88 34.78 52.14 56.26 48.10 41.57 43.95 48.60 44.00
Cody Ceci 56 329.85 34.79 58.57 56.57 50.90 42.13 40.98 50.70 47.60
Morgan Rielly 47 324.58 37.23 62.11 58.60 51.50 44.75 46.80 48.90 50.00
Tyson Barrie 70 306.30 24.20 60.92 60.33 50.20 44.04 49.36 47.10 41.20
Travis Dermott 56 220.55 25.20 56.59 52.23 52.00 46.36 38.00 55.00 45.50
Martin Marincin 26 92.80 26.79 59.48 57.54 50.80 40.15 43.25 48.10 42.90
Rasmus Sandin 28 57.07 15.67 50.47 73.60 40.70 35.01 75.91 31.60 36.40
Data from PuckIQ.com (Team Leaders in Bold)

So while he wasn’t playing a ton against the elite competition, Dermott was on the ice for the strongest shot suppression results. That didn’t exactly translate into fewer goals though, as Rielly, Holl, and Ceci all had better results against the toughest competition. Generally if you are going to get scored on, it’s going to come from the other teams top line, so the fact that the results are sub 50% isn’t the end of the world, but still not ideal.

Dermott’s results against all competition:

Tier EVTOI CTOI% CF/60 CA/60 CF% DFF/60 DFA/60 DFF% GF%
All 875.22 100.00 53.47 53.34 50.10 42.12 37.92 52.60 55.30
Elite 220.55 25.20 56.59 52.23 52.00 46.36 38.00 55.00 45.50
Middle 312.17 35.67 54.39 52.86 50.70 44.00 37.46 54.00 65.20
Gritensity 342.50 39.13 50.63 54.48 48.20 37.68 38.29 49.60 54.80

It’s interesting to see that Dermott’s shot metrics are best against the top competition, and this probably speaks to him also benefiting from a strong partner, and the linemates that go along with it too, but perhaps it’s a worthwhile takeaway that Dermott won’t be out of place if put in the top four and given more tough minutes.

Dermott’s Partners

As fun as it has been to spend the year hating on all things Cody Ceci, the one thing we can takeaway from his time here was that Dermott and Ceci made for a pretty productive third pairing at a time.

Partner TOI CF/60 CA/60 CF% GF% xGF/60 xGA/60 xGF% HDCF%
Justin Holl 297.68 54.42 53.82 50.28 47.83 2.45 2.13 53.46 51.85
Tyson Barrie 273.17 58.43 57.11 50.57 59.26 2.48 2.35 51.34 52.94
Cody Ceci 189.90 48.97 48.97 50.00 50.00 2.19 1.73 55.99 55.74
Martin Marincin 38.93 52.40 60.10 46.58 100.00 2.97 2.89 50.68 47.37
Morgan Rielly 25.57 39.90 65.71 37.78 50.00 0.94 2.43 27.97 28.57
Jake Muzzin 19.88 48.28 33.19 59.26 100.00 1.96 1.07 64.72 50.00
Rasmus Sandin 19.42 58.71 52.53 52.78 100.00 2.57 1.72 59.84 50.00
Timothy Liljegren 10.47 51.59 63.06 45.00 50.00 2.68 2.67 50.06 40.00
Calle Rosen 1.07 0.00 112.50 0.00 0.00 0.00 2.11 0.00
Data from NaturalStatTrick.com

Probably the other takeaway here is that the Leafs strongly viewed Dermott as a left side defender, seeing most of his icetime with the right shooting partners, or with Martin Marincin who was more likely to play the right side than Dermott when paired together. The Leafs had the luxury for most of the year of staying with a lefty/righty partnership so the numbers aren’t surprising.

What might be most alarming is how terrible Dermott’s numbers were with Morgan Rielly, albeit in a small sample. If we look at the small sample results for Sandin and Muzzin the story improves significantly about being able to play with another left shooting partner. The direct comparison is below…

Partner Shot TOI CF/60 CA/60 CF% GF% xGF/60 xGA/60 xGF% HDCF%
Left 104.87 49.21 55.50 46.99 75.00 2.18 2.21 49.67 44.74
Right 771.22 54.46 53.91 50.25 52.94 2.40 2.12 53.15 52.90

So without knowing which side Dermott was playing on in these situations, particularly when partnered with left shooting partners, the results are strongly in favour of keeping Dermott in a traditional lefty/righty pairing situation. Though this is with the caveats that Dermott had a lot more time to develop and practice with the right shooting partners this season, and in a year where 88% of his 5v5 icetime was with right handed partner, there might have been a significant change playing with a fellow lefty or moving to the other side of the ice.

So if it makes sense for Dermott to stay on the left, what becomes of Sandin? Rielly?

So Dermott is pretty darn good, probably too good for a third pairing and he is capable of playing against tougher competition, but he might not be ideal on the right side. The question becomes whether the Leafs want to revisit the idea of Morgan Rielly on the right side (probably not) or develop Rasmus Sandin by playing him on the right side, and likely doing so while he plays in the top four. That’s a big gamble to take with a top pairing defender or a top prospect to accommodate Dermott.

In the case of Rielly, there’s the fact that he isn’t a strong player in his own zone and potentially those issues could be similar no matter which side of the ice he’s on. In Sandin’s situation there’s the fact that you want to get him more ice time and experience with strong partners who can develop him, and those partners on the Leafs are Muzzin and Rielly. They could be players transitioned to the right side, but there’s probably a lot more to lose with those decisions.

Of course, there’s also the situation that this article is considering unlikely, and that is that the Leafs don’t necessarily see Rasmus Sandin as a full time NHL player yet and none of this is really an issue when it comes to depth.

Dermott’s RFA Status

Up until now I haven’t even discussed the fact that Dermott is a player in need of being re-signed this summer. The 23 year old doesn’t have arbitration rights which will help make it a bit easier for the Leafs, and while he’s been very serviceable in his role, there’s nothing on Dermott’s resume that warrants a huge payday. This all favours the Leafs, as does the fact that Justin Holl’s contract probably sets a $2M cap for what they’d look to spend.

The reality of Holl’s contract, which included generous term for him was offered at a time when it became established he could be a NHL defensemen and not someone who would be leaned on heavily in the top four.

Dermott’s contract is one where paying for potential is a possibility if the Leafs choose to go longer term. While that gamble may ultimately pay off, the Leafs are better off chasing the cheapest possible deal at this point, and while benchmarking to Holl is what I’d like to push for, the reality is that recent RFA defensive contracts show Dermott might not be that cheap…

PLAYER AGE TEAM LENGTH CAP HIT
Marcus Pettersson 23 PIT 5 $4,025,175
Rasmus Andersson 23 CGY 6 $4,550,000
Brandon Carlo 22 BOS 2 $2,850,000
Will Butcher 24 NJ 3 $3,733,333
Neal Pionk 23 WPG 2 $3,000,000
Nikita Zadorov 24 COL 1 $3,200,000
Travis Sanheim 23 PHI 2 $3,250,000
Darnell Nurse 23 EDM 2 $3,200,000
Joshua Morrissey 23 WPG 2 $3,150,000
Steven Santini 23 NJ 3 $1,416,667
Data from PuckPedia.com

So, I guess that Holl contract might not be happening. The Nurse and Morrissey contracts are examples of bridges before their paydays, both were more highly touted prospects and had a higher upside than Dermott, so perhaps that’s a case for getting him cheaper. The same can probably be said for Sanheim and Zadorov. The Carlo and Pionk contracts look to be the standard bridge for players similar to Dermott, although both Carlo and Pionk have had higher usage from their teams.

Andersson, again being slightly higher skilled, is an example of if the Leafs chose to go long term with Dermott. Assuming they could get Dermott cheaper, and more inline with the Pettersson cap hit or cheaper, that could be a case for a longer term deal now, as there isn’t a huge variance between a bad bridge deal and a good long term deal.

I include Santini here because that’s the dream. I’m not holding my breath, but that contract keeps Dermott on the Leafs and in the lineup for the entirety of his contract.

The Trade Option

My bias here is that I really like Dermott. I think he’s got a great attitude, he’s shown a willingness to play wherever needed with whomever the Leafs want him playing with. He has experience playing with up and comers like Liljegren and Holl. He’s proven he can be an excellent bottom pairing option who you feel comfortable moving up the lineup during injuries. I’d like to see the Leafs keep him, but realize that both the depth realities of having Rielly, Muzzin, and Sandin ahead of him on the left, and the potential implications of his contract might push him out.

Again, not to bury this thought, but I’d argue that moving the soon to be very expensive Morgan Rielly for a premium might make more sense for the organization, even if it comes with significant short term pain.

There’s no doubt that Dermott would have value, and potentially packaged with a Leafs winger the Leafs could seek out a true right side defenseman on the market, or free up some space to bid on one in free agency.

Of course, I’m going to immediately discard this notion because the questions around Rielly’s next contract, Muzzin’s age, and Sandin’s development all point to not moving on from the safe bet in Dermott.

Waiting

The immediate question that needs to be answered will be what Dermott’s next contract looks like, and while nothing has been said publicly, you’d hope the organization has at least established what ballpark they are playing in and that has factored in to whether they will be keeping Travis or trying to trade him.

The next question is whether or not he can be the right side defender the Leafs probably need him to be. While the 2019-20 numbers may not support him being up to that switch, a full training camp with a consistent partner might change that.

What does seem to be true at this point in Dermott’s career is that he’s ready to make a move off the bottom pairing. His results have been too good, and his game is versatile enough to have success. While it’s hard to establish what the Leafs will do with Travis, it seems very likely that he will be an important player to watch when we eventually have established an offseason.