The bloom has come off the rose for Travis Dermott with Leafs fans, and it’s not too hard to see why. In his third NHL season, Dermott has yet to concretely demonstrate that he can be more than a guy who plays sheltered third pair minutes and does reasonably well in them.
At points in the aborted 2019/2020 season, the heavily injured nature of the Leafs defence forced Sheldon Keefe to turn to Dermott in a more substantial role. His TOI increased significantly as the season progressed as a result.
As you can see, Dermott’s TOI shot up around Game 40, coinciding with the injuries to Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly. When the Leafs were fully healthy, however, he seemed blocked from above by the aforementioned defensemen. The extension of Muzzin also raises long-term questions about Dermott’s place in the lineup, as he faces pressure from below through Rasmus Sandin. Sandin played 3rd pair minutes exclusively in 2019/2020, but at 19, he has much more upward mobility than Dermott does at 23. When we look at his season on the whole, Dermott is not trusted to play important minutes, and he’s not receiving particularly notable zone usage either.
If he’s not going to be preferred to Rielly or Muzzin on the left side when the Leafs are healthy, where does that leave him in the Leafs plans? After the playoffs this season, he will be a RFA. Frankly, there isn’t a strong argument that he should get much money at all. Largely, two things get defencemen paid: points and TOI. Dermott doesn’t really have either, barring a few weeks where the Leafs were basically hit injury after injury. He’s young and should be cheap, so I expect him to be a Leaf next year. However, it seems clear that the progression of his career relies heavily on his ability to move to the right side, given the extreme blockage in front of him on the left. Alternately, he has to hope Jake Muzzin falls off soon, and that he, not Rasmus Sandin is the one to step up into his spot. I don’t think that’s anything the Leafs want, however.
So we’ve talked a lot about Dermott’s spot in the lineup and discussed his usage, but we haven’t talked about the results he gets when he does play. His overall on-ice numbers are around the Leafs’ team average (in terms of xG).
Dermott’s improvement over the Leafs’ numbers are primarily through the team’s improved defense when he’s on the ice. This pattern persists when we restrict to the part of the season when Dermott played larger minutes. This is a bit crude, but looking at Game 43 (when Dermott’s TOI started increasing) to the end of the season, Dermott had a -2.2% CF% Rel, but a 1.4% xG% Rel (per Natural Stat Trick), again driven by a lower event style (which graded out as a net negative through Corsi and a net positive through xG).
Looking at his year on the whole, and attempting to adjust for his usage, HockeyViz estimates his isolated xG impact as 3% worse than an average player in 2019/2020. Once again, it reflects the suppressing effect he appears to have on both his own team’s offense and the opponents offense.
Taking a broader view on his isolated xG impacts across his career, we see a notable change from his first year to his second and third. In Year 1, HockeyViz’s model credits Dermott with really strong play driving results as he dominated in sheltered third pairing minutes under Babcock. That credit dried up last year, as Dermott’s top line numbers took a step back, but he was still on the positive side of average.
The trend in his isolated xG impact is not one we’d want to see, though I’m comfortable lumping the last two years as roughly equivalent and around league average (one has to be careful to recognize that these impacts are themselves estimates and have variance attached to them, both through error in estimating the player’s actual on-ice impact in that season, and in the player potentially over or under-performing their ‘true’ on-ice impact over that season). Evolving-Hockey’s RAPM indicates largely the same pattern.
From a scouting perspective, Dermott is known for his skating agility and aggressive style in the neutral zone. He tends to want to get right up into opposing forwards’ faces as they try and carry the puck in, trusting his mobility to make sure he doesn’t get beaten wide. His mobility helps him in zone exits, where microstats tracking has generally painted him as a good, if unspectacular puck mover. As his point totals suggest, he’s not an offensive dynamo in terms of individual shot contributions or passing.
So where does that leave him? He’s a player who the all-in-one play driving metrics view as near enough to league average while playing pretty nondescript minutes. He’s not been trusted by two different coaches except in real emergency situations (though it’s fair to point out that he is facing strong competition on the left side). He faces pressure from above and below on the left side, and while we’ve heard about the idea of him moving to the right side, that hasn’t happened particularly often in his NHL career so far, which is now about 160 games old. As an RFA who has no track record of individual offense or minute-munching, he should be cheap which is always nice for a team as cap-strapped as the Leafs. While he still possesses upside at 23, he probably is what he is at this point. So can we expect anything more than a roughly league average defenseman who is blocked on his preferred side? My guess is no.
Katya: The Leafs have a lot of players nearly too old for this list who I’m not sure about, and Dermott is one. He’s an NHLer for sure, so that’s more than Korshkov and Malgin have going for them. But is he held back by handedness? Is he going to swap over to the right and suddenly blossom in the playoffs, is he really a 5-6 defender or does he belong on the top pair? Is he one of those whose mistakes are overshadowing his value? If he was a righty, would you consider him better than Tyson Barrie? I think no on balance, but yes at five-on-five, and still not be absolutely sure. I am so sick of talking about defencemen, though.
Fulemin: One day I aspire to know more about Travis Dermott. That day has not yet come. I knew a couple of years ago he was an interesting young defenceman who can do very well in third-pair minutes. I still know that. Can he do more, especially on his off side (because there aren’t going to be a ton of top-four LD jobs on the Leafs for a while)? I’ve been waiting a long time to find out, and at the risk of sounding old-school here: I’ve never believed that moving up from the third pair is so easy that his results there prove that he can.
Brigstew: Travis Dermott is a defenseman.
Species: Yes, he is. I’m not convinced what I’ve seen is a player on the way up the ranks any further, and I’ve seen a lot of him in the past few years. He’s maxed out at Lieutenant Junior Grade as the security officer who dies on the away mission with Justin Holl in command. However, on the 2020 Leafs, his junior officer rank sill places him in the upper half of the defence prospect corps, so, here he is at #8.
Hardev: I think Dermott is going to get passed by Liljegren on the depth chart next season. The time to trade him is coming up unless he genuinely exceeds expectations and can play top-four on the right side and do it well. He’s also going to be exposed in the Expansion Draft by all calculations, which is going to make things difficult. In terms of the player, I like him and I’ll always be proud of his developmental charge through the Marlies onto the Leafs. It was a real whirlwind when it happened. I’m still concerned about his decision-making even as he’s ready to turn 24 in December. But I like his athleticism. Unfortunately he’s not right handed.
Votes - Travis Dermott
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How good is Travis Dermott
This poll is closed
3rd pair NHLer
Straddling 3rd pair and 2nd pair
A Top-4 defenceman blocked by two better ones
A Top-4 defenceman who deserves more ice time
Should be playing on the right side