TORONTO – In the hours leading up to Leafs-Bruins — the tightest and most difficult to predict opening-round series of these Stanley Cup playoffs — Travis Dermott came to a happy realization.
“From here on out,” Dermott said, “every game is the biggest game I’ve played in my life.”
And, we might add, the hardest.
As much as the skilled, happy-go-lucky defender is the type of guy fans instantly want to root for, Dermott has struggled to keep his head above water after rather suddenly getting chucked into the deep end.
To be fair to the 21-year-old mid-season call-up, no top-six defenceman still alive in this post-season has less NHL experience than Dermott, who possesses the right attitude and more than enough raw ability to evolve into a top-four fixture.
But here? Now? He’s playing catch-up.
Dermott could be fingered as Exhibit A in a striking team stat: The Maple Leafs lead all playoff clubs with 70(!) giveaways, and no team standing has a worse giveaway-to-takeaway ratio. Toronto has turned over 29 more pucks to Boston than it has stolen.
Dermott may lead Leafs D-men in 5-on-5 Corsi (55%), but that figure alone is deceptively kind. The rookie has turned it over nine times and never stolen it back. He’s a team-worst minus-3 and, although a swift skater and smart playmaker, he’s yet to contribute offensively through six games.
He’s not playing special teams, nor is he blocking shots (four, lowest among Leafs defenders) or hitting (1.5 per game, and it’s not his identity), and his ice time has dipped from an average of 16 minutes in 37 regular-season appearances to 13:55 when it matters.
“He’s got a lot to learn,” said coach Mike Babcock, who doesn’t have another lefty option on the charter.
“Confidence is one of those things: you’ve got it one day in the National Hockey League, and then it goes away quickly and you’ve got to keep your nerve, you’ve got to continue to make plays and you’ve got to be good defensively.”
Simply put, Babcock doesn’t trust Dermott in his own end yet.
The kid’s offensive-zone starts are more than twice the number of his defensive-zone starts, and in elimination games 5 and 6, both Leafs wins, Babcock further chopped Dermott’s ice to under 10 minutes.
“The defensive stuff stands out more. If you’re on the ice and the puck goes in, that stands out. The coach remembers that,” Babcock says.
“The guy pushing you out wants you to be safe. Then he wants you to make plays. But, he wants you to be safe first.”
With his first Game 7 on the horizon, Dermott talks about the basics: getting pucks to the forwards as quickly as possible, using team speed to counterattack, weathering that big, bad Bruins storm, and focusing on the positives.
“You gotta take this stuff in stride. You make mistakes, but you can’t dwell on them. You have to move forward. Especially in the playoffs, when you have another game the next day or the day after. You have to move on from things and learn from your mistakes. Get ready for the next game quick,” Dermott says.
“You gotta be aware of your surroundings and make sure you’re playing good defence first.”
Unlike some players whom we can spot stewing with their errors and may be prone to going on tilt, Dermott’s approach is refreshingly upbeat.
May we all wear our failures so well.
This week he reiterated that this is “the best time of my life.” He’s living out his childhood dreams, and you can’t take that away from him.
Heck, he’s even relishing all the chirps being tossed his way from those grizzled Bruins.
“I’ve got a couple shots my way,” smiles Dermott, who thinks better of dishing out specifics.
“It’s kinda funny stuff that you can brush off. It’s hockey. Guys are competitive. You know it’s not personal, but anything to give your team the edge.”
“Lick my cheek? I dunno. I’d be honoured, first of all,” says Dermott. More smiles. He knows he’s no agitator.
“Some guys go about it a certain way that you can’t help but laugh. I don’t know if they’re trying to make you laugh or trying to make you mad, but most of the time you’ll end up laughing about it.”
Dermott has serious skills and a serious future, but he’s still tiptoeing into becoming a defender who forces elite forwards to take him seriously.
Insults, criticism, turnovers — he’ll gladly take a licking and keep on ticking.
“That stuff can get in your head pretty easily,” Dermott admits, “but you’ve got to forget about it. If you let that stuff bother you, you’re going to make more mistakes and you’ll be sitting beside Coach the rest of the game.
“You don’t want that to happen.”