TORONTO — Rightly or wrongly, the more patient evaluators of the underwhelming, uber-talented 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs have been waiting on three players to return to action before casting their ballots on arguably the league’s most thrilling yet infuriating roster.
Step one towards full health takes place Tuesday, when a medically-cleared Travis Dermott finally steps on game ice since undergoing off-season shoulder surgery.
“It’s been way too long. I think it’s the longest I’ve been away from the game I love most in my life,” Dermott said after Monday’s up-tempo practice. “It’s what I’ve been thinking about and dreaming about for the last six months, so it’s really exciting.”
Dermott, 22, will slot in on his natural side to the left of fellow Marlies graduate Justin Holl on the club’s third pairing and should benefit from being eased in with relatively sheltered minutes against a powerhouse Washington Capitals club.
Although expectations should be tempered for anyone who hasn’t played a shift in nearly seven months, Dermott is a slick-skating puck-mover the organization has targeted for an eventual top-four role.
It’s telling that Dermott’s spot beside Holl has been filled through a patchwork committee of prized teenage prospect Rasmus Sandin, and low-risk, low-reward options like Kevin Gravel and Martin Marincin.
Should Dermott, whom the club has pushed to give some experience playing the right side, excel over the coming months, it’s conceivable he could gradually build a case to see more than the 17:18 of ice time he averaged over 64 appearances last season.
Fun fact: The impending RFA is also entering his platform year.
Although lower on the Leafs’ depth chart than the Jake Muzzins, Tyson Barries and Cody Cecis of the world, Dermott’s accelerated growth into a reliable piece of the puzzle is critical to both him individually and the franchise, considering all three of the aforementioned defencemen are tracking toward unrestricted free agency.
Despite Dermott’s minus-5 rating last season, his first as a full-time NHLer, he flexed flashes of offensive flair (17 points, plus three more in the Boston series) and helped drive possession (55-per-cent Corsi at even strength).
“He’s got unbelievable edges. He can pass the puck. He’s still a kid sorting it out in his own zone, figuring out how to play, and he’s been injured quite a bit. And so that takes more time,” said coach Mike Babcock, cautioning against the challenge of catching up to a league with a three-week head start.
“The No. 1 job for a D-man is keeping it out of your net. And so that’s going to be the challenge for him. But, also, you don’t want to be careful with him. He’s a good player.”
And a well-conditioned one.
Dermott has been punching the clock for intensive rehab and vigorous training sessions with his LTIR mate, winger Zach Hyman (knee), at the Leafs’ west-end practice facility for months. The intensity of his practices has ramped up with this return in mind.
“I sure feel like I’m in shape with the amount of stuff I’ve been doing,” Dermott smiled. “They know I need to be pushed to be ready to go.”
Not quite ready to go are the Leafs’ other two missing cogs, shutdown-line forwards Hyman and John Tavares (finger), the latter still skating by himself and stickhandling with a special lightweight puck.
Also worth noting, the most-used Maple Leaf, defenceman Morgan Rielly, missed his third straight team practice Monday but, Babcock assured, will play Tuesday when the troubled Leafs (6-5-2) look to get back on track.
“Consistency is the word,” Muzzin said. “Inside, I think we’re fine. We know we haven’t played to the best of our ability. It’s in here. We’re getting guys back, and we’re hungry to be better, so I think those are all good things.”