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Travis Dermott glimpsed the top four, will he get there again?

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For six games, Dermott played a whole new role. How did it go?

Colorado Avalanche v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Earlier, I uncovered the shocking truth about the Leafs defensive pairs, and who was really playing as the top two defenders. Kyle Dubas turned that on its head with the acquisition of Jake Muzzin, so now there are three top-four defenders and one big question mark in Nikita Zaitsev.

Judging by the usage I detail in the first post, Muzzin is very likely to lift some of the burden off of Zaitsev in terms of how the five-on-five minutes are doled out. The tricky part there will be not overloading Morgan Rielly, who will be Muzzin’s partner. I won’t be surprised if a Muzzin-Zaitsev pair and a Gardiner-Rielly pair still show up in limited minutes in special circumstances.

All of this leaves out Travis Dermott, who is likely to spend the rest of the season, barring injuries, on the third pair with Ron Hainsey. Will they get the same level of care in their usage the third pair has been getting for the past season and a half? That’s also a question we’ll have to wait to have answered.

The first article about defence usage covers the whole season up to January 10. Today, I’m going to look at the six games since then where Travis Dermott got a chance to flex his muscles in bigger minutes. His changed usage started before Jake Gardiner missed two games with back spasms.

I’m forgiving myself for not seeing it coming because in the last game included in that first analysis, Dermott played the least of all defenders at five-on-five. He even played less than partner Igor Ozhiganov for what could be the first time ever This was partly due to him missing a segment of the first period after he was hit into the boards, but his usage in the rest of the game didn’t hint at what was to come.

In the first game of the six between January 11 and the break, Travis Dermott played the most minutes at five-on-five of any defender. That game was against Boston, so it was no easy ride against a bottom feeder team, but their forward talent drops off pretty fast after the first two lines.

Defender usage January 11 to the ASG

Player GP TOI TOI/GP
Player GP TOI TOI/GP
Morgan Rielly 6 122.65 20.44
Jake Gardiner 4 75.38 18.85
Ron Hainsey 6 103.92 17.32
Travis Dermott 6 100.43 16.74
Nikita Zaitsev 6 100.17 16.69
Martin Marincin 2 28.67 14.33
Igor Ozhiganov 6 75.45 12.58

While the top pair overall remained Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, it’s obvious that Rielly’s minutes climbed as well as Dermott’s. Game by game, it breaks down like this:

Defender ice time game by game January 11 to ASG

Player vs Boston vs Colorado vs Tampa Bay vs Florida vs Arizona vs Washington
Player vs Boston vs Colorado vs Tampa Bay vs Florida vs Arizona vs Washington
Morgan Rielly 18:04 17:58 18:52 21:13 21:42 24:48
Ron Hainsey 14:22 17:07 16:12 18:13 16:04 21:54
Travis Dermott 19:13 18:06 9:57 14:52 18:12 20:04
Nikita Zaitsev 16:48 15:16 18:03 17:34 14:30 17:58
Martin Marincin 0:00 0:00 0:00 0:00 15:07 13:31
Igor Ozhiganov 15:13 14:24 9:00 12:34 11:40 12:34
Jake Gardiner 19:07 15:58 21:18 18:58 0:00 0

We might be seeing some evidence of Jake Gardiner being intermittently in pain prior to the two games he missed. But also, the pattern holds of the left-side defender playing more than his partner, down all three pairs, every game. This is about to change with the addition of Muzzin, at least on his pair, and this will have ripple effects all through the defence corps.

The Tampa and Florida games were just normal usage games, with Morgan Rielly taking a few of Gardiner’s minutes in the Florida game. But in all the others, Dermott played big minutes.

Mike Babcock was trying to either give Dermott more minutes against some teams with poor depth, or replace Jake Gardiner outright in these games, and that meant that Rielly lost a little of his offensive skew, but Dermott just got pitched in the deep end:

Defender usage January 11 to ASG

Player GP TOI/GP Off. Zone Starts/60 Neu. Zone Starts/60 Def. Zone Starts/60 On The Fly Starts/60 Off. Zone Start %
Player GP TOI/GP Off. Zone Starts/60 Neu. Zone Starts/60 Def. Zone Starts/60 On The Fly Starts/60 Off. Zone Start %
Martin Marincin 2 14.33 10.47 10.47 2.09 60.7 83.33
Jake Gardiner 4 18.85 8.76 15.12 3.98 47.76 68.75
Ron Hainsey 6 17.32 8.08 14.43 13.28 48.5 37.84
Morgan Rielly 6 20.44 7.83 10.76 11.25 42.07 41.03
Nikita Zaitsev 6 16.69 6.59 14.38 8.39 53.31 44
Igor Ozhiganov 6 12.58 6.36 19.88 6.36 50.89 50
Travis Dermott 6 16.74 3.58 16.13 5.97 50.78 37.5

Of course, in six games, a coach’s choices are constrained by circumstances like how much offensive time there is to share around, but it’s still a very different usage over this period. Dermott wasn’t a fake top-four guy the way Martin Marincin has been in the past. And look at Marincin — he got babied harder than Dermott ever has in terms of his deployment during his two games, so there’s something to be learned there about who the coaching staff thinks can handle real minutes and who can’t.

The “within one point” state of usage is as follows:

Defender usage when the score is ‘within one’ January 11 to ASG

Player GP TOI/GP Off. Zone Starts/60 Neu. Zone Starts/60 Def. Zone Starts/60 On The Fly Starts/60 Off. Zone Start %
Player GP TOI/GP Off. Zone Starts/60 Neu. Zone Starts/60 Def. Zone Starts/60 On The Fly Starts/60 Off. Zone Start %
Martin Marincin 2 11.81 10.16 7.62 2.54 63.51 80
Jake Gardiner 4 18.48 8.93 13.8 4.06 47.89 68.75
Igor Ozhiganov 6 11.38 6.15 18.45 7.03 52.71 46.67
Morgan Rielly 6 18.92 8.46 11.1 11.1 40.7 43.24
Ron Hainsey 6 15.68 8.93 14.04 13.4 47.85 40
Nikita Zaitsev 6 15.59 5.77 13.47 8.98 53.88 39.13
Travis Dermott 6 15.62 2.56 16 6.4 51.85 28.57

The usage change when the score was close shows an attempt to get Morgan Rielly in the offensive zone more, sit Marincin and Ozhiganov, but very surprisingly, Dermott’s usage got more defensively oriented.

Conclusion

Whether by design or because of some less than healthy teammates, this six game trial of Travis Dermott in the top four was largely successful. The two games vs Florida and Tampa don’t really count since the usage pattern was very similar to the standard, and that’s curious. In hindsight, maybe more Dermott vs Florida would have been better, but no one can complain about the results in Tampa.

In general, Dermott got a lot less easy offensive usage, lots of minutes, but his competition was carefully managed. He saw the second line against Washington, the second and third against Boston, and he only matched up against Colorado’s super line for two and a half minutes.

He’s not suddenly a top pairing defender judging by these results. He’s not getting quite the same usage that Rielly and Gardiner have gotten over the course of the season. One thing that I thought I saw in the two games without Gardiner was that Nikita Zaitsev played more aggressively offensively with Dermott than he normally does. He did shoot the puck over his average rate in both games, so that might have been an accurate read.

Over these six games, Ozhiganov leads the Leafs in Score and Venue Adjusted Corsi For percentage, and that’s a lesson that no one seems willing to learn. Third pairing defenders are often used in ways that gives them very exciting shot share figures, particularly against teams with weaker depth. But Travis Dermott was fourth, behind Marincin and Nazem Kadri, in this period.

Dermott got those very good numbers with an excellent, but not quite team-leading offensive pace, and a very good (for the Leafs) rate of Corsi Against. It’s really hard to complain about any of his play in this small sample of more minutes and tougher usage. He shot the puck a little less than his norm, and that’s likely fine.

What is Dermott?

He’s not a first violin like Rielly, to use the tortured orchestra metaphor from the previous post. He’s likely something much more like Gardiner, a player whose chief area of dominion is the neutral zone and the moments of transition. Let’s get a look at Muzzin in action first, but it’s also possible that Dermott has a lot in common with his hybrid style.

Dermott’s really good shot share in his gentle usage in the NHL so far certainly hints at driving play being his major skill, not offence per se, and not exactly defence either. The careful usage Dermott (and all rookies under Babcock) gets isn’t just zone starts and competition, it’s also game state, and likely a host of other things we don’t measure. An on the fly start with certain possession of the puck and no pressure in the neutral zone is not the same as an on the fly start that leads to a session mired with the defensively-confused forwards. But that said, Dermott’s shot share, adjusted for those things in the ways we can do right now, still looks very, very good.

He doesn’t have a shot anywhere as good as Gardiner’s. It’s not as good as Hainsey’s either. And while he’s got a way with the offensive pinch, he doesn’t have the look of a 50 point guy. But he’s also only 22, and he’s a really fast and mobile skater who fits the style of the Leafs to a T. He needs to be better at defending under pressure, though, and there’s no way he looks like he should be defending top lines. He very emphatically was not doing that in the four games he played big minutes, so the fantasy of him slotting in now in the top four in place of Zaitsev is just not coming true.

With the addition of Jake Muzzin, Dermott is in a kind of limbo now, if an interesting one. He’s going to play, and he’s going to play with a much more experienced partner in Ron Hainsey, not a rookie to the NHL. I think Dermott passed this test playing more meaningful minutes, and it may be that the third pair can be leaned on a little harder for the rest of the season, and not just because of Hainsey.

What this examination should teach us though, is that the pairs on the lineup card are not the full story. Things we might want to watch for is some Gardiner - Dermott time together offensively when goal scoring is needed. At a guess I expect the ice time to be fairly even between the top three defenders with a drop down to Zaitsev, then Dermott then Hainsey.

After about 20 games or so, I’ll have a look to see how the new Leafs defence corps is actually being used.