After playing out the stretch drive of the 2018-2019 season with a shoulder that was nowhere near 100%, Travis Dermott had offseason surgery and missed the first 13 games of this season. Playing catch up from the beginning, he initially struggled to meet the lofty expectations many had for him entering his third NHL campaign.
As injuries piled up on Toronto’s blue line, Dermott was thrust into a more prominent role and found his footing playing heavier minutes against stiffer competition.
Still just 23 years old and yet to complete a full NHL season, there is plenty of untapped potential with Travis Dermott that was starting to be realized before the NHL season was stopped.
By The Numbers
Though he may not have taken a step forward in terms of offensive production, Dermott’s defensive numbers were impressive. His 2.13 xGA/60 was the best mark among Leafs defenders and his 52.62 xGF% was the second best, just behind Justin Holl. He was also the beneficiary of a high on-ice shooting percentage while leading the Leafs defensive unit in GF% and your uncle’s favourite stat, plus/minus.
Dermott’s isolated defensive impact was also the best of all Leafs defencemen. He does a good job of preventing opposing shot attempts in general, but especially from the high danger area in front of his net as we can see in the heat map above. Much like the rest of the bottom half of Toronto’s lineup, Dermott struggled to generate much in the way of offense. His skill set lends itself to creating and sustaining offensive possession so I believe those numbers will rebound, especially if he earns consistent ice time with the team’s more offensively gifted forwards.
Dermott is one of the best defencemen in transition, not just on the Leafs roster, but in the entire league. He moves the puck out of his zone at an elite rate but he’s even better at preventing opposing players from entering the offensive zone with possession, ranking in the 99th percentile league wide in both zone entry prevention metrics charted here:
Dermott’s statistical value might not be apparent at first glance, but digging a bit deeper into the numbers shows that he was a bright spot on a poor defensive team.
What We’ve Seen So Far
To borrow a term more commonly used in football, Dermott is what is referred to as a “high motor” player. He brings an infectious energy both on and off the ice, endearing himself to teammates and media alike.
He’s a fantastic skater who is at his best when he’s playing aggressively with and without the puck on his stick. His lateral movement and edge work make him very difficult to forecheck and that elusiveness is what makes him so effective at transporting the puck out of his zone.
We always hear about a defenceman’s ability to make a good first pass, but often times what comes before that pass is just as important. Dermott is one of the best in the league at retrieving the puck below the goal line and making someone miss while creating space to complete a clean breakout pass.
Opponents need to just stop forechecking on Dermott pic.twitter.com/zMNmRwoM5s
— Nick DeSouza (@NickDeSouza_) November 6, 2019
If the pass isn’t there, he won’t hesitate to skate the puck up the ice himself. Here he wins a race up the boards and makes a nice move to dodge a check in the neutral zone before entering the offensive zone and dishing the puck to Matthews for a good scoring chance:
Where Dermott really shines is in the neutral zone, which results in him spending less time in his own zone. He’s so good at killing breakouts in the middle of the ice, whether it be with excellent gap control or by reading the play and stepping up to make a stop.
Again, everything revolves around his skating. He can be aggressive because he knows that he has the ability to get back and recover if he gets beat or if the play quickly turns the other way.
You're allowed to aggressively take chances when you can skate like Travis Dermott. pic.twitter.com/ryH8M7H6Bh
— Nick DeSouza (@NickDeSouza_) December 13, 2019
With Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin both missing significant time this season, Dermott performed admirably in what was the biggest test of his young career. He has all the tools that NHL teams covet in a modern day defenceman, but is still working to put it all together and prove he’s capable of handling a top four role on a consistent basis.
How will he do against Columbus?
In case you haven’t heard by now, the Columbus Blue Jackets are a strong forechecking team that likes to finish their checks. Dermott’s knack for shaking forecheckers or taking a hit to make a play will be a key factor in Toronto’s ability to break the puck out and avoid getting hemmed in. The Blue Jackets roster isn’t exactly flush with high-end, flashy forwards and Dermott should be able to do what he does best: kill plenty of rushes before they can even get started.
Columbus does a good job of clogging up the middle of the ice and Dermott’s penchant for skating the puck out of trouble could be the perfect antidote. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him earn a larger role in this kind of matchup if the Leafs are looking for more mobility in their top four.
Dermott’s place in the lineup has been a topic of discussion for fans and analysts for a couple of years now, and it’s been debated among the Leafs staff as well.
Jack Han, former Maple Leafs Hockey Operations Assistant and Marlies assistant coach, recently published a newsletter detailing his stance (one I wholeheartedly agree with) that Travis Dermott is the right-side defenceman the Leafs have been looking for all along.
As of now, he seems destined to start the play-in round on the left side of the third pair with Tyson Barrie as his partner. That’s a pretty damn good third unit and it could allow the Leafs to spread the workload more evenly across the blue line. If one of Toronto’s right side defencemen struggles or is deemed unfit to play at any point, Dermott would be the most logical candidate to take over that spot.
Playing out the final games of his entry-level contract, Dermott will be eager to make an impact as the Leafs begin this most unusual quest for a Stanley Cup. What he’s done to this point in his career has been impressive but it’s what he’s still capable of that should have Leafs fans most excited.
Special thanks to @NickDeSouza_ for providing video
(Statistics from NaturalStatTrick.com,
Viz and data from hockeyviz.com,