Maple Leafs’ Travis Dermott still fighting for roster spot

Mike Babcock is more than impressed by Auston Matthews, saying the third-year centre is now "skating at another level."

You won’t find a projection of the Toronto Maple Leafs blue line anywhere that doesn’t include the name Travis Dermott written in permanent ink.

Unless, perhaps, you manage to catch a glimpse of Mike Babcock’s working list. He’s still using pencil when it comes to the five, six and seven spots.

It’s not so much that the coach has doubts about a 21-year-old coming off an impressive half-season with the Leafs and a Calder Cup victory with the Marlies. But he’s been watching closely at the outset of training camp and is not seeing quite as much as he’d like from Dermott.

“Well I want him to act like he’s trying to make the team,” Babcock said Sunday, after the Leafs wrapped up three days of on-ice sessions in Niagara Falls. “So intensity and jump and compete. You know, young guys, sometimes when you arrive what happens to you, is you think ‘Oh I’ve arrived now.’

“But the other guys want your job so it’s about getting better each and every day. I think him and [winger Andreas Johnsson] are both in the same boat that way – they went down, they won a championship and yet it’s the National Hockey League and you’ve got to win a job.”

At minimum, he’s looking to motivate with that message. There is no room for anyone to get too comfortable or complacent in Babcock’s orbit.


The Leafs have a glut of defencemen battling for jobs and could, in theory, start the season with rugged Andreas Borgman or smooth-skating Calle Rosen manning the left side of the third pairing instead of Dermott.

Each of those players saw NHL action last season and Dermott, the youngest of the trio, made the biggest impact. Since none of them will require waivers to be sent back to the Marlies at the end of training camp, it is a true competition free of external decision-making factors. (Things are more complicated on the right side, where Connor Carrick and Justin Holl are both waiver eligible while newcomer Igor Ozhiganov – an early Babcock favourite – is not).

Dermott nearly made the Leafs out of camp last year, with the coach saying he would have won a spot had he shot right instead of left. He later arrived like a breath of fresh air following an early January callup, taking advantage of sheltered deployment to help the Leafs control 54.6 per cent of even-strength shot attempts while he was on the ice over 37 games.

The plodding Roman Polak, his most common partner, was at 57 per cent with Dermott last season and 45.2 per cent without him.

The rookie dressed for all seven playoff games against Boston, which further cemented the idea he’s all-but guaranteed a spot on the 2018-19 roster. He even fielded a question from a reporter on Sunday that started “So we know that there’s a quote-unquote battle for the depth spots on the blue-line, but…”

At least Dermott seems to recognize that he still needs to make an impact in the exhibition games, which start with the Leafs facing Ottawa in Lucan, Ont., on Tuesday night.

“I don’t think you can come in expecting that a job’s waiting for you,” said Dermott. “But I think with my experience last year, it gives me confidence, for sure, coming in here maybe a little more comfortable. Knowing what I have to do to be successful and play my game.”

There is only so much Babcock can glean from the scrimmages he’s seen so far. The Leafs opened camp with 73 players and that meant a lot of guys on the ice were a long way from NHL calibre.

However, the coach mentioned that the biggest surprise for him was how many players put themselves on the radar that he didn’t expect to be there. This is an organization now boasting oodles of depth options trying to break through the glass ceiling.

“Well I think the Marlies success is because they had good players,” said Babcock. “So when I look at [Trevor] Moore – I think Moore’s been fantastic – high-octane, goes. I think [Pierre] Enqvall can become a good player that you can use, real good pace. [Carl] Grundstrom’s got to dig in here, he’s another guy that can be a NHL player.

“Then they had those ‘D’ there that … I’m going to watch them play. Because the American [Hockey] League and the NHL is a different bird. One’s got lots of space and one has no space, and so we’ll see.”

He still has two weeks before the toughest decisions need to be made.

History tells us that Dermott should be fine, but also that he’d be wise not to taken anything for granted. There are still minutes to be won among the group already assured of a spot with the big team.

“You always want to move up [the lineup], right?” said Dermott. “If you get comfortable in where you are in career, you’re going to plateau, and then eventually you start going downhill pretty quick. So you want to keep pushing yourself and keep expecting more from yourself.”

If nothing else, that’s proof he’s paying attention when Babcock speaks.

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