I was so wrong about Travis Dermott. How wrong? Totally and completely seems about right.
Why was I so deeply out to lunch on this guy who I thought was spinning his wheels in the AHL and turning into a penalty machine who couldn’t defend at all? I’ve thought about this a lot because it’s usually more instructive to learn from your mistakes rather than comfort yourself with your successes. This is something Dermott has demonstrated he has done, so how can I not try to as well?
How I Got it Wrong
Prior to his NHL callup, Dermott had played in the Leafs training camp exhibition games, and he looked pretty good to my eye. Not as skilled with the puck as Calle Rosen, and not as physical as Andreas Borgman, but he looked like he had a better overall mix than either of those two players who had played some serious professional hockey in Sweden. However, he was also defensively porous and did a lot of questionable things on the ice. It seemed totally right that he went back to the AHL and Rosen and Borgman got long looks. At the time, Dermott was 20, Borgman: 22 and Rosen: 23. The older pair had what I guess everyone means when they say “poise”.
What you normally want and expect to see in the AHL from a player who is on the cusp and could break through in a mid-season callup, is a guy who is dominating at that level. Andreas Johnsson in the second half of this season, for example. Even then, there have been dominant AHL scorers on the Marlies before who didn’t make the jump.
The last five points leaders on the Marlies before this season are: Ryan Hamilton, T.J. Brennan, Connor Brown, Brennan again, and Kerby Rychel. Johnsson is still on top of this year’s list, but will be eclipsed by Ben Smith in short order.
So if big points isn’t really the guarantee that a player is ready — and it’s not, no matter how excited you get by highlight reel goals — then what is the thing you should look at? With forwards, I like to look at shot rate first, and points second, but that’s not going to work as well with a defenceman.
No harm in starting there, however. On the Marlies this season, Dermott had 1.77 Shots on Goal per game, which is 90th for defencemen league-wide. He’s behind Calle Rosen, who shoots like a forward (and likely too much) at 2.62 SOG/GP. He’s also behind Justin Holl, who shoots at a rate of 2.16, and Andreas Borgman, who is at 1.94.
This isn’t a quiz with a right answer. Different defenders play in different ways and shoot at different rates, and because the AHL does not track Shots on Goal by game state, we have to rely on all-situations numbers, so power play time will mess with how it looks.
In terms of points, Dermott did well on the Marlies, leading the defenders in Primary Points per game, just a hair ahead of Holl. This is a five-on-five stat, and for reference: Dermott at .25 and Holl at .24 are 15th and 17th league wide (for defenders who have more than 20 games). For context, the greatest offensive defenceman in the AHL, T.J. Brennan, is third at .30.
But the presence of Holl near Dermott in these offensive measures, should tell us something. The Marlies are an offensive powerhouse; they score a lot of goals; and you should expect the top defenders to be good. Holl, by the way, is having the best season of his career.
But here’s the difficulty: There’s a bunch of defenders in the 14 players ahead of Dermott who have tried the NHL and not stuck. Brennan is one, but so is Mark Alt, Oliver Kylington, Patrick Wiercioch, Steve Oleksy, Andrey Pedan, Zach Redmond, and Frank Corrado. Points aren’t everything. But we knew that.
So what about Dermott’s defence? One of the great difficulties in judging how a player is performing in the AHL is that the style of play is more chaotic than in the NHL. Every European who comes over and plays in the minors comments on how players are just running around, and you never know what they’re going to do.
By the eyetest, Dermott was a guy who made a lot of near panic plays in his own end, and had a terrible habit of digging the puck out of the corner and centering it right in front of his own net. The Marlies have a habit in general of playing like they have an NHL-calibre goalie behind them because they come as close to that as any AHL team can every night.
One thing I like to look at with defencemen in the AHL is their penalties. Chasing the play leads to defenders taking penalties, and a lot of them will be hooking or tripping. Look at Corrado’s career as an example of this in action.
The Marlies are the fourth least penalized team in the AHL at 696 minutes. Belleville, at the top, has 1091 minutes. And 118 of those Marlies’ minutes are courtesy of the AHL’s fourth most penalized player: Andrew Nielsen. At minutes per game, Nielsen’s rate out at 2.11. Dermott is third on the team behind Rich Clune with 1.56. Borgman, and we know what he’s like, only has 1.06, and the rest of the team in under one minute per game. So this difference between Dermott and everyone else is significant. A lot of Clune’s and Nielsen’s minutes are for fighting or roughing majors. Dermott is just piling up minor penalties all over the place.
So maybe he was spinning his wheels a little and getting a bit too enthusiastically into the AHL-style of play. I was also a bit cautious about him because his points, which are a big improvement over last year, are coming via assists on a team stacked with offensive power. You can get an assist by sitting next to Johnsson on the bench.
One thing Dermott was most definitely doing was learning to play the penalty kill. The Marlies have the AHL’s best PK, and a lot of that is their high-end goalies, but not all of it. Dermott has played right side a bit in the AHL too, a nod to the lack of right-shooting defenders in the organization as a whole.
So, I should have trusted his training camp performance more and allowed for the wild style of play teams face in the AHL when I was looking at his readiness. I did think he needed to be hearing a new coaching voice, and maybe that was somewhat correct because his NHL results are really interesting compared to those I just looked at.
How Good is He?
He has 8 PIM in 30 NHL games vs 34 in 28 AHL games. The fear that his penalty spree would continue was wholly unfounded. His discipline has been excellent, and clearly he can keep up mentally and physically to NHL play. Sheldon Keefe used to say that Dermott drew more penalties than he took, but we can’t verify that without a long stroll through the gamesheets. In the NHL, he’s taken four and drawn six.
What was never in question was his work ethic, and it shows in the NHL in a fully engaged player. The points are not piling up, however, even allowing for an expected drop in the NHL. He has four primary points. He also has seven secondary assists. But in Primary Points per game (at five-on-five), that works out to 0.13, and that is exactly Roman Polak’s primary point rate. It’s also Andreas Borgman’s primary point rate and beats Connor Carrick’s by a sliver. Low points seems to be related to the way the third pair is used. Morgan Rielly is at .25 for comparison’s sake.
The usage of those four third-pairing defenders and their results is so interesting, there’s a whole article in it; for now I’ll just say that Dermott and Carrick are nearly identical in how they are used and the results they produce. They are very carefully placed on the ice in terms of teammates, score state, zone, everything, and they are not playing this game on nightmare level by any means. (That’s Nikita Zaitsev.)
So Travis Dermott, 21 and fresh out of the AHL, is the equal of the soon to be 24 year old with three-and-a-half years in the NHL. The eye test favours Dermott in a lot of ways, particularly in terms of the choices he makes on the ice, but there are not any results to back up Dermott over Carrick. Dermott has the highest on-ice save percentage on the team, which means he looks better because no one is scoring on him. This is not something you can credit to him, however. His and Carrick’s Expected Goals against (Corsica.hockey) are identical. And are good, by the way, they both have excellent results by that measure as well as Corsi or any other shot differential you might use.
I am very intrigued by how good Dermott is at the penalty kill and also that he can play on the power play, although the new NHL with the 4F-1D power plays means that’s not a very marketable skill unless you’re as good as Rielly. He’d need to vault over third choice Nikita Zaitsev to see much time there on the Leafs. PK is where the jobs are, kids! Study that, not the sexy power play you all want to spend time on.
So, yes, I was wrong. I’m very glad I was, and I will dig a little deeper into those four third-pairing defenders sometime soon, but I will say this: Don’t count out Borgman in the conversation for permanent roster spot. But Dermott has already locked his down, and he looks overqualified for his usage and like a man who learns from his mistakes very quickly. Give him a better partner next season, and that usage will get harder while his sparkly shot differential numbers might dim a little, or even a lot, but I think he’ll be up to the challenge.