TORONTO – So, you think the Toronto Maple Leafs need another defenceman, eh?
From this seat it appears they’ve already found one.
That Travis Dermott came from the same place as so many others on this roster is no coincidence. The best organizations, the ones with the highest aspirations, tend to do their most significant building from within.
Being able to promote a 21-year-old defenceman from the American Hockey League is a heck of a lot better than trading away assets at the deadline to land a veteran rental. That’s assuming the internal option can handle the task, of course, and it’s hard to find anything in Dermott’s game so far which suggests he’s not.
“He’s got a lot of confidence,” Auston Matthews said after Wednesday’s 5-0 victory over the New York Islanders. “He’s not afraid to carry the puck. He’s skilled. He can play both ways with the puck. Good skater. Sees the ice well. Makes guys around him better so it’s always fun going out there with guys that can play like that.”
Dermott does everything expected of a modern NHL defenceman.
He’s played just nine NHL games, sure, but the Leafs have controlled 55.1 per cent of even-strength shot attempts with him on the ice. Even with favourable zone starts, that catches your attention.
It was the NHL debut for the 26-year-old Holl and he received an afternoon text from Dermott before arriving at Air Canada Centre that read: “We’re playing together. I’ve had chills for the last five minutes.”
Guess what happened next? They scored their first NHL goals against poor Thomas Greiss roughly 25 minutes apart.
“You can’t even put it into words,” said Dermott. “You can’t write it up any more perfect than this.”
“It was pretty surreal when it happened,” added Holl. “Well first of all I was fired up for his first goal – really excited for him – and when [I scored mine], we both looked at each other and we’re like: ‘Is this real? Like what’s going on?'”
It happened with Dermott’s dad, Jim, in tears in the building. He was here as part of the annual father’s trip that will make stops at Madison Square Garden and TD Garden in the days ahead. Holl’s dad, Jerry, was watching at home in Minnesota because of the last-minute circumstances behind his call-up, but plans are afoot to have him join the team in New York on Thursday.
The Leafs are reaping the benefits of building a powerhouse AHL team that’s managed to go 128-56-12 since the start of the 2015-16 season while churning out NHLers at an impressive rate.
Not only are Dermott and Holl direct products of that system, but also Kasperi Kapanen, who was recalled from the Marlies last week to help invigorate the fourth line. He opened the scoring against the Islanders with a determined second effort.
They might well represent an eventual second wave of Marlies graduates behind William Nylander, Zach Hyman and Connor Brown – a group that became full-time Leafs last season along with Matthews and Mitch Marner.
What Dermott offers in the here and now should certainly give management plenty to ponder with the Feb. 26 trade deadline looming. Solutions to perceived problems may already be in-house, even if Babcock began publicly lobbying for reinforcements on Wednesday morning by saying: “The bottom line is it’s our job as a team to put as much pressure as we can on [GM] Lou [Lamoriello] to help us.”
It is difficult to imagine Dermott going back to the Marlies even when this blue line returns to health.
Look at the way he created his goal – rushing the puck into the offensive zone and losing it deep, before recovering with a one-handed strip of Mathew Barzal and connecting on a quick strike from Nylander in transition.
“I kind of made a bad play coming in, I turned the puck over,” said Dermott. “Lucky enough I got the puck back, gave it to Willy and he gave me the perfect pass right on a slate. I just put my head down, went to that far post and started swinging.”
It was one of Toronto’s most complete victories of the season. Babcock simply rolled his retooled lines, and they rolled right over a struggling Islanders team playing on the second half of a back-to-back.
A surge of enthusiasm has accompanied the push from within.
It’s not unlike what we’ve seen in Pittsburgh in recent years during wave after wave of call-ups to fill holes around their stars. Young legs can work wonders. It’s arguably the most desirable form of depth in today’s NHL.
“When we play fast it’s a lot more fun for the guys,” said Babcock. “We think we have good quickness throughout our lineup and I think it’s starting to show again.”