In his second year of eligibility, despite added depth in the prospect pool, Erie Otters defensemen Travis Dermott has seen his status rise in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization according to our panel of voters.
Last year, shortly after being the Leafs' second pick of the 2015 NHL Draft after Mitch Marner, Dermott was ranked 22nd in our 2015 Top 25 Under 25 (T25U25) series. This year, after a standout season, Dermott has leaped up the rankings to move to 19th in the 2016 edition of the T25U25, surpassing previously more highly ranked prospects such as Frederik Gauthier (unranked in 2016, 19th in 2015) and Viktor Loov (unranked in 2016, 16th in 2015).
At No. 19, Dermott represents the first significant jump in point totals. While he finished only one spot ahead of Tobias Lindberg, Dermott finished the voting with 111 points, creating significant seperation from Lindberg's 84. As a result, Dermott is actually more closely ranked with the player at No. 16, three spots away, than he is with Lindberg at No. 20.
Ranked highest by Chris at No. 12 and lowest by Katya at No. 25, Dermott ties Birky's Rinat Valiev ranking for the highest placement on a list among players ranked 25-19 so far. He is also the first player ranked so far to find his way onto all 14 panelists' lists.
After a standout draft year on a stacked Otters team, many of our voters were apprehensive of Dermott's high secondary assist totals and average skating. This time around, voters were impressed by Dermott's stepped-up production and rising primary point totals without McDavid and co., solidifying himself as one of the OHL's top defensemen.
Chris appreciates the way Dermott developed his two-way game last season.
I rated Travis Dermott so highly because in my opinion, this past season his all-around game took several strides forward. He didn't sacrifice any of his defensive game to improve his offensive game. He continued to make very smart plays both with and without the puck. He rarely seemed to try and force the play, which is something a lot of players in junior attempt to do at times. And his strong positioning in all three zones helped propel the high octane Otters' transition game.
In my opinion, because of how good the Otters were this season, he gets overlooked as being someone who was just "part" of that team and not a driving force on the team, which he was.
Katya still isn't sold on his production, and is wary of his height. She also ranked her T25U25 in favour of experience, rather than pure upside.
The only reason I ranked Travis Dermott at all, was to replace Kaskisuo, who I'd tossed in just to have the comfort of a goalie on the list. I didn't think he was very plausible so I picked a guy to switch him with.
I ranked Dermott low because I ranked all untested junior or college players low, with one obvious exception. I weighted my entire list heavier towards pro hockey experience and NHL or AHL readiness than perhaps most people tend to.
I didn't try to predict the future very much with lower level prospects. Andrew Nielsen gets in at a higher level because he's had some more comprehensive Marlies experience, and will make the team this year almost certainly after a breakout year last year.
Dermott is not a goal scorer, and Nielsen has proved he can score against juniour hockey goalies at least. Also Dermott's high points totals are overwhelmingly assists on a team with a high-octane offence, so I shaved a little off for the McDavid/Strome effect on his stats the past two years.
Nielsen also wins on size. Dermott, as a small mobile defenceman, should be scoring more now against those junior hockey goalies if he's going to have a NHL career because he's not getting in the show on his physical game.
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After being named to the OHL's First All-Rookie Team in 2013-14 when Dermott stepped out of Junior A hockey to play big minutes behind Adam Pelech and Spencer Abraham, the left-handed defensemen took on an even more prominent role on Erie's top pairing in his draft year.
And while Dermott played his way to 45 points in 61 games as a draft-eligible defender before being taken 34th overall by the Leafs, it was his standout playoff performance that signalled things to come and allowed him to rise late in the season in draft rankings. In his draft year, Dermott led all OHL defensemen in playoff scoring, finishing behind only 10 forwards with 17 points in 20 games before his Otters fell to the Oshawa Generals.
This past season, after the Otters lost their three leading playoff scorers in Connor McDavid, Remi Elie and Nick Baptiste, Dermott returned to Erie to be counted on to lead the team alongside top draftee Dylan Strome. Despite starting his season without a goal in his first 22 games, Dermott responded with 43 points in 51 games before putting in another dominant playoff performance with 14 points in 13 games while playing nearly every other shift.
While Dermott's primary points per game numbers weren't earth shattering at 0.471, he still finished ahead of some top prospects, including Arizona Coyotes first rounder Jakob Chychrun, Calgary Flames prospect Rasmus Andersson, and Carolina Hurricanes prospect Roland McKeown. On a sheer points per game level, Dermott ranked fourth in the OHL behind Andersson, Coyotes prospect Cam Dineen, and Montreal Canadiens prospect Mikhail Sergachev.
As a result of his strong performance, while playing tough minutes with Czech defensemen and Los Angeles Kings prospect Erik Cernak, Dermott was named to the OHL's Second All-Star Team alongside Chychrun and behind only Andersson and Sergachev.
While Katya is right to say that Dermott should be scoring more at this stage in his development, his six goals weren't for a lack of shooting. In fact, only four OHL defensemen averaged more shots on goal per game than Dermott's 2.94 in 2015-16.
Stylistically, Dermott plays a cerebral, slow-tempo game. While he is confident as a carrier, and can cradle the puck at the offensive blueline to make plays on net thanks to strong lateral footwork, Dermott isn't an elite skater and often relies on his ability as a heads up passer to create clean exits and entries. While his skating has improved drastically in the last 18 months, and is now well above average for the OHL level, he could stand to continue to pick up a step or two if he wants to be as effective at the pro level as he is in junior.
While he stands just 5-11, Dermott is a thick, powerful, sometimes-too-physical defender who plays at or past the proverbial 'edge'. This year, it cost him to the tune of a five-game suspension when he checked top Mississauga Steelheads prospect Owen Tippett from behind, forcing him to miss six weeks.
While he isn't a powerful shooter, Dermott does a good job sneaking into the high slot to beat goalies and create chances. Defensively, he has developed into an excellent man-on-man defender who rarely gets exposed one-on-one.
Here's what Otters coach Kris Knoblauch told me about his top defensemen after Erie struggled without him while he and Cernak were at the World Juniors.
"With Erik and Travis, both are very good defensively but what separates Travis from a good defensemen is how well he breaks the puck out," Knoblauch said following the game. "You can put as much pressure on him as you want and he’ll either get the puck out with a good pass to the forwards, or carry it out, or just elude that pressure so well – Erik does that also but maybe not quite as well as Travis."
"You can tell that those big minutes that Travis just makes look so easy, we missed them."
Moving forward, Dermott isn't eligible to return to this year's World Juniors (by just a few days). But if he continues to take positive steps forward, there's room for him to rise even further than his modest No. 19 rank would suggest. His close ranking with players No. 16, 17, and 18 already tells us as much.