TORONTO – The weight of a hard, flat salary cap. The influx of bargain free agents. The lack of arbitration rights or eye-popping statistics. And the hockey player’s natural craving for certainty in wildly uncertain times.
Imagine finally working your way through your entry-level deal, securing nearly 20 minutes a night in the post-season as a still-emerging defenceman for a franchise thin on the blue line, then seeing your AAV drop(!) to $874,125.
No wonder Dermott — a quick-to-smile 23-year-old incapable of seeing a glass half-empty — seemed a tad sheepish Saturday morning discussing his “nerve-racking” one-year settlement and now tenuous position as a third-pairing defenceman in Toronto.
The guy had next to no negotiating leverage in a depressed off-season, and the only path to gaining some will be asserting himself on the ice as one of the six best defencemen in the system.
“You don’t like being on your toes, or at least I don't. I like to keep everything certain. I knew I wanted to stay in Toronto. My options were obviously limited,” Dermott explained over Zoom.
“It's been a little bit of a nerve-racking experience, and I have been talking with my agent, and he knew that I kind of wanted to get it done pretty quickly. So, we were able to do that, and it's looking good now.”
The deal, in a similar vein as Ilya Mikheyev’s earlier in the week, is a tidy bit of business on the part of GM Kyle Dubas, who has been knocking back team-friendly, prove-it contracts for UFAs and RFAs like Halloween candies.
The Maple Leafs’ middle class is now all but extinct, and competition for ice time on the edges of the forward and defence cores should be fierce.
“We haven't had the success as a group to where anything is owed to anybody based on previous performance,” Dubas proclaimed.
So, it is into a landscape now populated with Stanley Cup–winning Zach Bogosian, KHL star Mikko Lehtonen, late-blooming shutdown man Justin Holl, and hungry rookie Rasmus Sandin that Dermott must carve his niche.
“It’s exciting. I mean, I always like a competition,” Dermott said. “It's gonna get guys to push each other and really force guys to be their best version of themselves and be really prepared in time for camp.”
To that end, Dermott wasted little time resting after the Leafs’ quick, humbling bubble ouster at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets. He’s been a regular alongside Zach Hyman, Jason Spezza, Rich Clune and others at the Leafs’ practice facility, grinding in the gym and getting on-ice reps on both the left and right sides.
“I love the right side. I played the right side in junior. It's nice. There’s actually a lot of little parts of the game that I like better on the right side, that I find easier. So, I am not scared of that task at all,” Dermott enthuses.
“In the offensive zone, you're more available for a quick shot from your D-partner. Some breakout stuff is easier because your body is more open to the ice.”
The lefty wants to remain as sharp and versatile as possible to be of use to coach Keefe, with whom he drank from the Calder Cup in 2018, when both were NHL hopefuls.
“Keefer knows how I play when I'm at my best, and I know how I play at my best — so that's what they expect for me,” Dermott said.
“Anything less, then there's guys biting at my heels to get in and steal my job.”
Entering an arduous 2019-20 season, observers had penciled Dermott in as perhaps the next Jake Gardiner, a swift, twitchy skater ready to lead the breakout and ascend to top-four minutes.
Yet off-season shoulder surgery threw a wrench in the Newmarket native’s development, and friend Holl emerged from Mike Babcock’s doghouse to surpass Dermott in coach’s trust and, now, salary.
“Coming back from injury, I don't think I came back as fast and as dominantly as I wanted to. So you learn through those experiences,” Dermott said. “I got a lot of big [defencemen] back there that I can look up to. And guys will show me the way. So it's just kind of keeping eyes and ears open, I think -- especially during all this craziness that's happening in the world -- and you just try to learn as much as you can and go forward on a better foot.”
Although Dermott’s possession metrics and offensive numbers (four goals and 11 points in 56 games) didn’t amount to a strong enough case for a juicy raise, the defender was finding his stride in the second half of 2019-20, when injuries slammed the D corps. And it’s worth noting his plus-14 rating, though sheltered, topped all Leafs defencemen last season.
The tools are there. The opportunity is there. And, next off-season, so too will be the arbitration rights.
Now it’s up to Dermott to make $874,125 look like a heist.
“At the end of the day, I just want to be playing hockey,” said Dermott, betting on himself.
“Whatever number’s there is the number that's there. I'm just honoured to be back and excited to play.”