Since Travis Dermott entered the NHL, Leafs fans have been eagerly anticipating the presumed future where he would become a staple of their top four. Dermott is an easy player to dream upon. After being drafted in the second round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, he made the stable, consistent jumps in production and level that you’d hope to see from a young player. He went from an elite player in junior to a good AHL player, to a very good AHL player, to being called up into the NHL.
Visually, he’s also fun to watch. He plays a frantic, frenetic style, all over the ice. Dermott gets right his opponent’s sweater in the neutral zone, trusting his mobility to bail him out of any jams his aggressiveness gets him in. He takes opportunities to get into the play as a defenceman, and is not shy about moving the puck quickly with his feet or hands.
Over his first two years in the NHL, he was able to flex these aspects of his game regularly, aided by the pillow soft usage Mike Babcock found for him. Dermott was the quintessential sheltered third pairing defenceman.
The above chart visualizes the Leafs defence 5v5 ice time in 2017/2018. There is a lot of information here, but focus on the purple bars that show up shortly after game 40. While Dermott had a handful of games shortly after his debut where he was the Leafs’ 4th defenceman at 5v5, throughout the rest of the year, he settled into being a clear third pairing player at 5v5, with his minutes coming with Roman Polak or Connor Carrick. As you’d expect, Dermott primarily faced lower-end competition in this role.
Once again, there’s a decent amount going on here, but focus on the white block that bears Dermott’s name. This suggests that the average forward Dermott faced was a 15 minute per night player - in other words, a comfortable bottom six player.
Dermott was also used frequently with the Leafs line of James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, and Connor Brown, who themselves were quite carefully sheltered and managed (suggesting the same was true of Dermott).
Even in terms of score and game state, it’s clear Dermott wasn’t really trusted (defensively) relative to his colleagues on the Leafs blueline.
As shown above, Babcock played Dermott in situations where a goal against was relatively not as harmful, in comparison with Ron Hainsey or Nikita Zaitsev. While he was trusted comparatively more in situations where the Leafs needed a goal, it’s clear that Dermott did not have the full faith of the Leafs coach to play the ‘real’ NHL game, which involves important minutes, more minutes, and better competition.
Given this pleasant usage, Dermott, frankly, kicked ass. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Leafs had a 56% CF% and xG% when Dermott was on the ice in 2017/2018. Using tools like RAPM and Isolated Threat, which attempt to separate the play driving impact of players from the context in which they play, Dermott was graded as a considerably above average, near-elite player. These methods are far from perfect (especially for players with extremely hard or soft usage), but they’re the best tools we have at isolating a player’s ability to help their team with the territorial battle when they’re on the ice.
Given this success, there was some frustration among the Leafs fan base that Dermott wasn’t trusted more. Such frustration was (and is) understandable, as the Leafs top four that year was far from ideal. Nonetheless, Mike Babcock was hardly the first coach to shy away from giving a green defenceman more rope than Hockey Twitter would want, and Dermott was just 21. The hope was that the following year, Dermott would graduate to big boy usage, and continue his on-ice success there.
Well, unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Dermott’s 2018/2019 season was a 6 month case of Groundhog Day. He got about the same percentage of 5v5 minutes, and was clearly on the third pair (though clearly the more preferred of the two third pair defencemen)
He got the same cushy usage in terms of forward competition.
He was still not trusted in key defensive minutes for the Leafs.
Interestingly, his on-ice results also regressed somewhat, with the Leafs achieving a 55% CF% and a 51% xG% with Dermott on the ice. Accordingly, RAPM and Isolated Threat view him as slightly above average, as opposed to the elite results of his rookie year. It is worth remembering that while it’s easy to think of on-ice results as a function of ‘latent talent’, the reality is that they are themselves subject to variance. There need not be a particular ‘reason’ that Dermott’s on-ice (and isolated) play driving statistics regressed from his rookie to his sophomore season. It could just be natural variance, with him never being as strong at play driving as his first partial season indicated. You can read into this regression as the Leafs system under Mike Babcock infecting Dermott like a zombie virus; I don’t think that’s the most likely reason, but your mileage may vary.
It’s also worth noting that Dermott’s sophomore year was unfortunately abbreviated by an injury that Dermott never appeared to recover from within the season. This poor bit of luck was compounded by offseason surgery that prevented Dermott from participating in training camp and the Leafs’ first 12 games of this season.
The upshot of it, however, is that the Leafs failed to fully explore Dermott’s capability in a real NHL role — a role where he’s actually counted upon to play important and potentially difficult minutes. I think there’s a more justifiable case to be frustrated with Mike Babcock’s obstinance with his defence pairs in that season. The tried-and-false top two pairings of Rielly-Hainsey and Gardiner-Zaitsev could have been re-instated at any time, and the Leafs had about two months of meaningless games with which they could experiment with roster construction and lineup choices. That they didn’t do so means they lost out on valuable information about what Dermott is, and more importantly, the chance that a pairing with Dermott in the top four would click and improve the Leafs as a team. I don’t think this is anywhere near guaranteed, to be clear. The list of guys who put up solid numbers in sheltered usage who never translated that to higher spots in the lineup is long. At the same time, there are defencemen who beat up on easy usage and then DID translate it to more important roles in new teams (Nate Schmidt is the easy example here).
The Leafs essentially learned nothing about Dermott in his sophomore year, aside from the fact that he was likely not quite as good as his shot results after his first year suggested. Given that he turns 23 in December and is in his contract year, that is a problem. The Leafs need to know what Dermott is in order to get a sense of what his next few years are going to be worth. This is especially true as the Leafs defence is in flux after this season. Their most likely path to a top four that doesn’t preclude them from a contender involves Dermott succeeding in that role (along with continued development from Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren). From a roster construction perspective, it’s not ideal to have to bet on a player making a jump to an important role they’ve not demonstrated they’ll succeed in (barring highly touted rookies).
As our attention turns to this season... the story hasn’t changed in any meaningful way. Dermott received essentially the same usage under Babcock, and in the five games the Leafs have played under Sheldon Keefe, Dermott hasn’t exactly burst to the top of the depth chart. In fact, he hasn’t even really been the fifth defenceman this year, as Justin Holl has generally been the third pair guy who is closer to top four minutes. Of course, as a right shooting defenceman, Holl has a clearer path to those minutes.
At some point, the Leafs do need to figure out what they have in Dermott, and there’s no time like the present. Unfortunately, the reality of the Leafs’ poor start means that they’re in a dogfight to make the playoffs. The low-leverage games have gone by, and Keefe is only going to play Dermott in the top four if he feels it’s more likely than not that it helps the team win. We can’t really justify experiments to the same degree that we could last February, another reason why the Leafs failure to do that last year was such a critical misstep. Time will tell if he manages to make that leap under Keefe, but if not, the projected path for Dermott to be a top four defenceman takes another significant detour.