At Toronto Maple Leafs rookie camp over the weekend, most fans wanted to get a close look at Timothy Liljegren, their steal of a first-round pick. But another slightly older defenceman made his first pitch for a roster spot.
Travis Dermott, 20, the most NHL-ready blue line prospect in the Leafs’ system, generated some buzz in Leaf Land over the weekend. He wasn’t available for the start of rookie camp because of an illness, but Dermott’s showing against the Ottawa Senators, a 4-3 loss in which Toronto blew a three-goal lead, had everyone talking.
“You look at the lineup and you say ‘OK, where are the positions that are open and is there someone in these rookie camps that can fill that spot?'” Jeff Marek explained on the Jeff Blair Show.
“When you start to slot players, assuming everyone’s going to stay healthy, you really say, ‘Well, there’s only one position up for grabs and it’s bottom pairing defenceman.’ Is that the place where Travis Dermott, with a good rookie camp and then a good main camp, can he distinguish himself and grab that position?”
After adding a few high-end rookies in Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner and William Nylander to last year’s lineup, the Leafs won’t come into 2017-18 with that many first-timers again. Even if Dermott does crack the opening night roster, he won’t come with the same rich pedigree and Toronto fans likely aren’t looking at another Calder Trophy candidate.
So where did Dermott come from and what kind of game would he bring to the Leafs? A second-rounder (34th overall) in 2015, Dermott played on two Connor McDavid Erie Otters teams and one with current Leafs teammate Connor Brown. His point-per-game averages in junior consistently rose year over year. In his first pro season with the Marlies in 2016-17, Dermott put up a solid 24 points in 59 games, a year interrupted by a late-October injury and tested by a more physical and mature league.
Dermott is strong for his listed five-foot-11, 207-pound frame as Senators prospect Gabriel Gagne found out when he was on the wrong side of a hip check at the rookie tournament — the kind of hit Dermott’s thrown a couple of times in his young career. In 2016, Dermott was suspended five games for a head check on Owen Tippett in the OHL — he can bring that kind of edge to his game, but with a high of 65 penalty minutes in junior, he’s not a liability or a regular topic for league disciplinary committees.
Dermott has shown he has the strength to compete, but what about the skill? Not to worry there either. He may not have the offensive upside to be a top-pair defender, but Dermott is an excellent skater and when you have that attribute and the smarts to use it efficiently, there’s a better-than-average chance you can reach the NHL.
“He has a lot of great abilities and assets that allow him to play the way the Maple Leafs want to play and the way the NHL is going in terms of his ability to skate that helps him offensively and defensively,” Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe said on Sportsnet 590 The Fan. “He’s really good at breaking the puck out and getting things moving out of his own zone so he’s got a lot of positive things going, but he’s still a very young player and it’s a deep group. So I think any player knows what they’re in for, it’s up to him to go in and earn his way.”
In May, Lamoriello talked about “one (Marlies defenceman) in particular” they were looking at to make the 2017-18 roster. There was no confusing he was talking about Dermott, so when a player gets that kind of mention from the legendary GM there’s something worth watching.
But even with that praise in his pocket, if Dermott is going to make the Maple Leafs he’s going to have to beat out the likes of Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman, a pair of early-20s blue-liners in their first North American seasons but with pro experience in Sweden. Left-shot Martin Marincin is still in consideration as a 6-7 option, but Dermott (also a left shot) has the higher ceiling and could be the safer pick.
Rookie camp aside, Dermott still needs to have a strong main camp, which opens later this week. There he will compete against established players and the defenders he’s in direct competition with. At the very least, he’d be a candidate for an early call-up when the first injury hits. It wouldn’t be a knock on Dermott if he’s sent back to the AHL to start the season, because his role would expand and confidence grow. It’s not often a player’s development is ruined by being cautious and bringing him along slowly.
Dermott’s personal goal is clear, but there’s almost nothing for him to lose at this year’s training camp.
“With any player you try to make sure they remain focused on what they can control,” Keefe said. “And in any player’s case that’s how you prepare off the ice; how you take care of yourself, how you work in the gym, how you work in practice, how you pay attention in meetings, and how you go out and execute those are the things you can control and anything else is outside of your ability to make any change. So you focus on that and your ability should speak for itself and that’s the road Travis has taken and we encourage all our players to take.
“If you’re good enough, good things end up happening.”