Quick Shifts: Travis Dermott is the happiest man in Toronto

NHL insider Renaud Lavoie makes a strong case for the Maple Leafs to target big, tough defenceman Erik Gudbranson from the Canucks at the deadline.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.

1. At least four times a game, Travis Dermott will be sitting on the bench looking at the player next to him and think out loud, “Damn, I love playing with you guys.”

The Toronto Maple Leafs rookie defenceman now has a lucky 13 NHL games under his belt, and hockey’s version of Jeff Spicoli couldn’t be more thrilled with the midwinter wave he’s caught.

Last weekend in Boston, Toronto had nine healthy D-men take the morning skate. Dermott, 21, didn’t make the cut out of training camp, but he did make the starting lineup that night, and some believe his rapid ascension may soften the club’s trade deadline plans.

Before Dermott made his debut, coach Mike Babcock said he didn’t want to notice him. Now, with five points, 25 shots, a plus-6 rating and a 53.04 Corsi-for percentage while skating 16:24 per night, it’s hard not to notice the speedy engine who sees passing lanes you missed and savours every shift.

“There is two parts to the equation,” Babcock warns. “There is his skill-set: he has a quick twitch, he is good passer and all that. I go through all the chances every game, and when you are involved in the chances, that’s the the part he has to figure out. You have to learn how to sort it out in his own zone, but he will over time.”

Still trying to stick on Toronto’s third pair, Dermott admits the Leafs goalies have covered up some his defensive mistakes. He’s certainly a work-in-progress, but he’s a keen student and an instant fan favourite. The happy face he made once he and fellow Marlie Justin Holl scored their first goals in the same game went viral.

We caught up with Dermott and his ineradicable smile for a mini Q&A.

SPORTSNET.CA: How does it feel to know you made enough of an impact in 10 NHL games to stick in the lineup once Morgan Rielly, Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak all came back healthy?

DERMOTT: Great. I just try to make the best of the opportunities they give me and not overthink it or count numbers. If they put you in, they trust you and your playing. But it is a big honour that they trust me to keep going in these games.

How would you describe the vibe amongst the defence right now, considering there has been a rotation of scratches? On one hand, you’re friends with these guys. On the other, you’re all battling for six spots.

We all push each other. I wouldn’t say it’s a rivalry by any means. We’ve got a lot of skilled D here, and whoever is playing best is going to get in. I think it’s an honest system they have going here. If you’re playing well, you’re going in. If you’re not playing well and you’re not getting in, they let you know what you’re doing wrong and what you have to do to get in.

How would you describe your chemistry with Connor Carrick, in the locker to your right here?

Cees is a great dude. [Carrick, laughing: “I’ll go away so you can talk about me.”] He’s got the best mentality around the room. He knows how to be a pro. Coming in as a young guy, he’s definitely an easy guy to look up to. He’s vocal, too, so that makes it easy for me to come out and play my game. Playing with Cees is fun. Whenever we’re out there, we know we’re going to have a good time. If we work hard, we’ll be in the offensive zone and get scoring chances. The comfort level is high.

You were used exclusively on your natural left side last season with the Marlies. This year, you’ve been pushed to the right occasionally. What’s the difference?

Mentally, you have to prepare a bit differently because you’ll be getting the pass from a different angle. You usually had three lefties and three righties growing up, at least on my teams. But hockey’s hockey, and you end up in weird positions on the ice.

Your dad was the first person you reached out to when you got called up. What did the Leafs’ fathers trip mean to you?

We went and had lunch and hung out a bit. It was nice. We hadn’t done that on the road together since minor hockey, going to tournaments. It was cool. All the dads were having a blast. He won’t stop saying what a great group of dads we have here.

Describe the significance of sharing a couple big-league games with Justin Holl. You were a big supporter of him getting an AHL all-star nod.

Great dude, great family. I’d heard lots of stories about his dad leading up to the trip. Now that I’ve met his dad, you can tell where Justin gets his intelligence and sense of humour. Great guys. My dad and I have taken a good liking to them. Hopefully all four of us can be good friends for a long time.

Who’s been the toughest forward to stop?

The first period against Chicago was an eye-opening experience. Every game, you look at the roster and see these top-end players and names that make you say, “Oh, my God, I’m playing against this guy today?!” These are guys I played as in NHL 07.

Who was your go-to team when you played video games?

I was the Leafs.

C’mon. Honestly?

Yeah. I’d take a top-end player and max him out in all the categories. I’d throw him on my favourite team to give him that extra advantage, then that guy would score, like, 10 goals a game.

Forward or D?

Usually forward. Just with the draws and stuff, it’s easier to jump in the play. The odd time I’d be a D-man to make it realistic for myself.

Some guys have mentioned how excited you are on the bench. Is that excitement fresh because of the promotion, or have you always been this way?

Your kinda living out your dreams. I’ve always had a love for the game. Once you stop loving the game, you’ll stop wanting to go out there and having fun. If you stop thinking about having fun, it goes downhill quick. I couldn’t imagine anything better. I don’t take anything for granted.

2. I found it interesting that Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving told Hockey Central at Noon Friday that the Rangers’ public announcement of their plan to sell off familiar faces won’t have any impact on the market because that was already common knowledge among opposing GMs.

So it was pure messaging for their fan base, but it’s a big vote of non-confidence for Alain Vigneault and his players. Imagine your boss letting the world know that your staff isn’t good enough and changes are coming.

Glen Sather and Jeff Gorton are leaping ahead of the outrage by dropping the public’s expectations. It worked for the Houston Astros. It has worked (so far) for the Maple Leafs. Sell hope and patience instead of a flailing wild-card grasp.

I can’t be the only one who read the Rangers’ rebuilding tweet who flashed back to Babcock’s introductory Toronto press conference in which he warned Leafs Nation, “I came to bring the pain hardcore from the brain.” (I’m paraphrasing.)

Honesty can sting. It’s fine to lower the bar — you just better jump over it.

Now: Henrik Lundqvist says he’s ready to ride this out. But the guy is a fierce competitor, not a tanker. Let’s see how he feels in June when five of his most talented teammates are ousted. Or in November, if New York is on track for consecutive draft lottery appearances.

3. The white-hot Boston Bruins roll out seven regulars aged 23 and under. Six core contributors are 31 and older.

Seeing a roster succeed with that type of age gap reminds me of some wisdom Jaromir Jagr spilled during the Florida Panthers’ fun run to a divisional crown in 2016.

“When you’re too old, you appreciate the game. You’re happy, and you do everything just to survive the game. When you’re too young, you’re excited and you’re very good, but you don’t know how good you are. But when you’re mid-age, I think you become more selfish and think about yourself. And we don’t have those middle guys,” Jagr said at that time.

“Don’t sign the middle guys!”

4. Toronto’s Morgan Rielly, who wears an A, says he’s growing more comfortable communicating with the league’s officials — a group under scrutiny of late and always.

“There’s certain nights where you’re very friendly with them, and there’s certain nights where… not as much,” says Rielly. “There’s been a few times this year where I’ve asked what the rule is on that, and they’ll tell me. I think I have a pretty good understanding of the rules, but there’s things you might not be up-to-date on.”

Rielly says Babcock will give the players a quick scouting report on each evening’s referee. Do they let stuff go? Are they whistle-happy?

“Just as players have tendencies, refs have tendencies as well. You know who they are before the game because it’s posted on the game sheet,” Rielly explains.

“I know a few of them. [Fellow B.C. native Trevor] Hanson was a ref in the Dub when I played in Moose Jaw, and now he’s a great ref in this league, so it’s kinda funny how you may have a relationship with a guy like that.”

Does it help you to have a rapport with a certain ref?

“Help me?” Reilly smiles. “I don’t know. Certainly we’ll talk, or if I have a question, I’ll just go ask. Or if I get heated, he’ll know it’s just because it’s an intense game.”

5. Even though the Oilers are going to miss the post-season, no one player has been more valuable to his team than Connor McDavid. He’s number 4 with a bullet (and games in hand) in the league’s scoring race.

Can we really vote for an MVP who can’t drag his team into a tournament more than half the league qualifies for?

Only four Hart winners (and only one in the modern era) have come from non-playoff teams:
1941-42: Brooklyn Americans’ Tommy Anderson (eighth in NHL scoring with 41 points)
1953-54: Chicago Black Hawks’ Al Rollins (workhorse goalie with a league-leading 47 losses)
1958-59: New York Rangers‘ Andy Bathgate (third in scoring)
1987-88: Pittsburgh Penguins’ Mario Lemieux (topped all NHLers with 70 goals and 168 points)

The Pens’ finished last in the Patrick Division in ’88 but only seven points out of first. As great as McDavid has been, I just don’t think his team is close enough or his stats are Mario enough (70 goals!) to defend his crown.

6. Which one is more of a slam-dunk: Gerard Gallant for Jack Adams or Patrice Bergeron for his record-breaking fifth Selke?

Bergeron, the best player on the hottest team, is now a trendy Hart pick. He’s certainly worthy of consideration, but if Bergeron can pull off the Hart-Selke double-up, it would mark a significant evolution in voter mind-set. As great as he’s been, the forward ranks outside the top 40 in NHL scoring and only third on his own team in points.

This could be voting along the lines of Drew Doughty for Norris: Hey, he’s due and he’s more complete. Stop thinking hockey is only offence!

Some praise is due to winger David Pastrnak, who now has two separate point streaks of 10 games or more this season. Pastrnak’s cap hit is $1.83 million less than that of Leon Draisaitl, his big summertime comparable.

7. Worldwide Web sensation (and all-around hardworking nice guy) Steve Dangle invited me on his Podcast this week. It was fun.

8. Mathew Barzal registered his third five-point night. Brock Boeser sat out with a hand injury. Barzal’s gap in the rookie scoring race leapt to 11 points.

Feb. 9 may go down as the night the 2018 Calder was won.

9. P.K. Subban is not afraid to casually tease Toronto with the prospect that he may one day become a Maple Leaf. Shortly after giving this interview to Shawn MacKenzie Wednesday, Subban was heartily booed in his hometown. Not sure why.

10. Great to see George Parros giving a 10-game suspension to Alex Burrows. Coming down hard on the unnecessary, deliberate acts will hopefully deter the nonsense.

Seeing the New York Islanders torch the Red Wings for four goals during one (debatable) slashing major to Tyler Bertuzzi, spurring a comeback from down 2-5 to win 7-6, makes me want to see more major penalties called.

Suspensions rarely compensate the offended team in a tangible way. Majors can.

11. Tom Anselmi leaving the Ottawa Senators after serving as president and CEO for just a year is not a good look.

Over the past six seasons, Ottawa’s average attendance has dropped from sixth to 13th to 16th to 17th to 21st to 24th. Anselmi couldn’t stop the bleeding, and now he can’t help with the LeBreton Flats transition.

Of all the major UFAs in 2018 and 2019, I’d be most nervous about Erik Karlsson leaving.

12. Zdeno Chara, 40, is must-follow on Instagram as he’s taken the Lovable Old Guy mantle from Jagr and run with it.

The Bruins’ re-signing of Chara, who logs major important minutes, now seems inevitable. Meanwhile, in Vancouver, the 37-year-old Sedin twins’ future is a mystery.

That’s not a knock on Henrik and Daniel. It just furthers our appreciation for what Chara is doing this year.

“When you have those highs and lows, that’s when you really rely on your teammates to support you and give you the special, special push and energy,” Chara says. “I don’t want to be finishing playing yet.”

Here’s the lengthy, insightful explanation Chara wrote to fans about his new diet.

“Plant-based: Since I started to be open about my decision to go plant-based I have been asked many questions: Why change your diet? Are you trying to lose weight? Why now? You don’t like the taste of meat, milk or cheese anymore? Are you sick? It’s simple: I believe I can be happier, healthier and more efficient than before. I can also tell how much it helps my performance on the ice. It all started early summer 2017 when I looked back at the year we had and how I wanted to get better physically and mentally for the upcoming season. That’s my goal before every season. To be better. The mental part didn’t worry me. I knew how much I enjoy working hard and how much I love the game. But with attention to details I really felt there was room to improve my nutrition. I thought I was eating healthy until I met a friend of mine and he told me about plant based. After only 6 months I can already feel how much positive change it had on my mind and my body. I will still have some fish every now and then, but I am on an exciting journey that altered my perspective on performance, recovery and energy. It is beautiful that we can all find our own, unique and sustainable equilibrium. I’m still passionately learning about the enhancement of athletic performance and the healing benefits of a plant based diet and I will happily share with my growing audience. Big Zee”

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