Travis Dermott gives Maple Leafs a glimpse of life after Jake Gardiner

Vinnie Hinostroza scored in the third period minutes after John Tavares tied it up for the Maple Leafs, giving the Coyotes a 4-2 win in Toronto.

TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs were given a sneak peek of what life after Jake Gardiner could look like, and in the words of coach Mike Babcock, it involves fewer plays.

That is not to say smooth-skating rookie Travis Dermott didn’t impress filling in for the top-four fixture to the left of Nikita Zaitsev during Sunday’s 4-2 loss to the Arizona Coyotes.

To the contrary. Dermott opened the scoring when he buzzed a wrister from the point through a net-front cluster, helped tilt the ice to the visitors’ end with a 61 per cent Corsi rating, contributed to both special teams, and proved himself a one-man breakout machine with rushes like this:

The man can wheel, and certainly looked inspired seeing his ice time elevated to 21-plus minutes.

“Everyone wants more minutes, everyone wants more opportunity,” Dermott, 22, said when it was relayed to him that his coach envisions him evolving into a top-four NHL defender. “[Zaitsev] helped me through that pretty nicely, made it easy on me, talking a lot. It seemed pretty seamless, but kudos to the guys around me for making it easy.”

The uneasy truth is that Gardiner only sticks around beyond this spring if GM Kyle Dubas can pull a rabbit out of his salary cap, or if a talented forward gets traded, or if the Minnesotan, an impending unrestricted free agent, takes a significant “hometown” discount to continue to play for a fan base (or, at least, a vocal minority) that has taken to booing him in shaky times.

Babcock was pleased with Dermott’s game, but elevating the skilled half of the Leafs’ sheltered third pairing leaves a duo of rookie Igor Ozhiganov and seldom-used Martin Marincin to white-knuckle through shifts and remind everyone just how thin Toronto’s D corps gets. And why it’s the focal point heading toward February’s trade deadline.

“I would have liked to have Jake because we would have had more plays, and the more plays you can have from the back, the more chances you have for clean looks offensively,” said Babcock.

The coach took his strongest stance against the Gardiner haters Friday in Florida, when the subject of Gardiner’s razzing was brought up yet again.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of a guy named Larry Murphy? We better be careful who we’re booing,” Babcock said. “The reality is, Gardiner’s a 50-point D-man. I think he’s plus-17. He’s a real player. We need him.”

For the first time in three-and-a-half years, they didn’t have him Sunday. The snapping of Gardiner’s pristine attendance record, which dates back to Oct. 30, 2015, coincided with his first home game since the booing.

Babcock said post-game Gardiner has been skating through back spasms for “a week or 10 days.” He participated in the morning skate but wasn’t healthy enough to go. Gardiner will skip Monday’s practice, too, and is questionable for Wednesday versus Washington, the Leafs’ final game before they disperse for the all-star break.

More opportunity rests on the horizon for Dermott, who’s put up 14 points without the benefit of power-play reps but ranks last on the club in with a minus-10.

“The puck can’t go in the net when you’re a D-man. That’s your job,” Babcock said recently, discussing Dermott’s progression.

“Dermy is a good player and has an opportunity to be a real good player. He’s got to continue to learn the game, read the game. The better he does at that, the more he’s going to play and the more efficient he’s going to be for us.”

Still on his entry-level deal for a season beyond this one, Dermott is the natural, affordable playmaking successor to skate behind Morgan Rielly on the left side.

“I just think his biggest thing is his quick twitch, his ability to execute offensively with the puck,” Babcock said. “His biggest on the other side is learning the game so you’re not a minus, so you can sort it out defensively, so you know what’s going on, so you don’t get caught on the wrong side, you know when to go and when not to go.

“Ideally, we’re hoping just like what happened to Gardiner and Rielly and those types of guys, that his game continues to grow and he can work his way into being a top-four D-man.”

Yes, it was just one lonely night against the Coyotes, a night they lost, but Dermott didn’t look the least bit out of place a little farther up the card. Some smart pinches, a few bursts, a red lamp, and a sign of more 20-minute nights to come.

“Each night there’s a couple of different leagues,” Babcock says. “There’s the guys who play against the top-six every night, and there’s the guys who don’t — and it’s different.”

As a 536-game veteran, Gardiner is used to a steady diet of top-six forwards. Dermott is a fine choice to mature into that role, but life without Gardiner will be different.

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