TORONTO – The biggest hindrance to Travis Dermott’s career path is entirely beyond his control. It goes all the way back to when he first picked up a hockey stick.
“You know, in an ideal world, he’d be a right-hand shot,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock lamented before Monday’s game against Columbus. “He would have been on the team all year.”
The 21-year-old is here now, but his status is very much day-to-day.
Dermott will be placed on the right side of Jake Gardiner for his second NHL game, which represents an opportunity for the player but underlines an aching need for the organization. The Leafs already have a left-handed shot in Ron Hainsey on the right side of the top pairing and now have another lefty occupying the spot directly behind him.
It was an experiment they first tried with Dermott in training camp. Quite candidly, he says: “I don’t think I did that well with it.” They didn’t ask his opinion before flipping him to the off-side against the Blue Jackets.
“I just thought ‘who is going to play that side?”’ said Babcock. “He’s up here, there’s an opportunity, do you want to play or not? It’s real simple, I didn’t ask him, I didn’t think like that. We think he’s a good player so let’s get him in the lineup and play.
“We’ll find out whether he can play or not over time. So we’ll just keep watching him and see what happens.”
With righty Nikita Zaistev expected to be out another two weeks with his broken foot, and Connor Carrick unable to earn Babcock’s trust, there’s a sizeable hole at right-hand D on the Leafs’ depth chart.
It is why they were aggressive in trying to trade for Travis Hamonic at last year’s draft and why you’ll hear a lot more discussion about that need ahead of the Feb. 26 trade deadline. The only issue is supply won’t come close to meeting the demand, and the acquisition cost will be high.
With that in mind, Toronto would be wise to put in a waiver claim on familiar face Cody Franson – although it’s unlikely he falls all the way to them when Tuesday’s waiver period ends at noon ET.
As it is, Roman Polak will be the only right-shot defenceman dressing for the Leafs on Monday night.
Dermott had an encouraging NHL debut playing limited minutes on the left side of the big Czech during Saturday’s 3-2 shootout victory over Vancouver. He also saw a handful of shifts on his off-side with Morgan Rielly, picking up a secondary assist on Tyler Bozak’s tying goal during one of them.
The 34th-overall pick from 2015 was overwhelmed with well-wishes after that debut, but is focused on showing that there are even more aspects to his game.
“I didn’t watch any video,” said Dermott. “I tried to stay away from it, especially because it was after my first game. I know I made some mistakes. You don’t have to re-watch the mistakes, you kind of just try and take the positives and go forward.
“I’ll take those positives and go into today hoping I can make some better plays. Game after game, I just want to be better.”
Babcock was famous for wanting to find a balance of left- and right-handed shots on his blue line when coaching the Detroit Red Wings. It even became part of the discussion around Team Canada when he earned two Olympic assignments.
In Toronto, with limited options, he’s had to adjust his approach.
On Monday morning, he pointed out that Dermott’s handled the job at lower levels of hockey and reasoned: “I don’t think it’ll be a big deal for him.”
But he added a caveat.
“Ron Hainsey would tell you it’s easier for him to play the left side,” said Babcock. “The puck comes up to the point and the guy’s screaming out at you, what do you with that thing? You don’t do anything with it, you bang it down and you start all over again. You get it off the wall.”
It’s not the ideal spot for a young puck-moving defenceman still adjusting to how little time the NHL game leaves him to make decisions.
No, but it is an opportunity. That’s really the only thing a player in Dermott’s skates can really hope for.
“Wherever I can fit in, wherever they want me to play, I’ll obviously do whatever I can to stay up here,” he said.