How Travis Dermott earned his call-up to the Maple Leafs

In the world of call-up hype, you often need a perfect storm to capture the everyone’s eyes. A supposed, gaping hole at the NHL level, and an immense run of form by the player looking to make their leap.

Travis Dermott had that perfect storm going for him. The Toronto Maple Leafs are struggling on the point at the moment, and with Nikita Zaitsev out with a foot injury, there isn’t exactly a lot of confidence in the team’s options at the bottom. Depending on your tastes, you probably want one of Toronto’s three weakest options replaced, whether it’s Roman Polak, Connor Carrick, or Martin Marincin. Meanwhile, Dermott is on a very loud tear after coming back from an upper-body injury, picking up six assists in his first pair of games after two weeks of time off.

“I didn’t even realize he had three points today,” said Sheldon Keefe of Dermott’s effort in Wednesday’s win over Laval. “But he’s played really well. He’s an important piece of our team, he’s made that obvious since coming back here. I think he’s come back and given our group confidence, but he’s got a lot of confidence too in how he’s playing and was able to recharge a little bit while being away.”

The young defenceman agreed with the idea of helpful rest. “We had a little rough patch while I was gone,” said Dermott. “The boys weren’t playing too well and I just didn’t want that to keep going when I came back, so any energy I could bring when I came back, I made sure I bought it.”

And with that, the Leafs made their move this morning, calling the 21-year-old up from the Marlies, sending Marincin down in his place.

Before the season started, I ranked Dermott as Toronto’s third-best prospect. Here’s what I had to say about his immediate future:

Dermott is pleading a strong case to make the Leafs this fall, but given how many worthy competitors there are for roster spots, I would assume that a lack of seniority leads to him not making the final cuts.

If that is the case, I’d expect him to return to the Marlies and be used aggressively. Not “given opportunity”, but deployed as if he was the best all-around defenceman in that league. In a lot of ways, he’s shown flashes of being that already, and if the Leafs organization’s goal is to make him capable of easily stepping into the NHL once there’s an opening, they’ll be giving him all the toughest minutes possible. Who he gets played with will be a big question; should Timothy Liljegren be staying over, the two have already played rookie tournament and preseason games together, but you can safely assume that Dermott will get treated like the Marlies’ #1 defenceman this season.

The good news is that almost all of that has happened. Dermott has been used as Toronto’s #1 defenceman, he’s spent most of his time with Liljegren, and the two have combined to be perhaps the American Hockey League’s most dynamic defensive pairing despite a combined age of under 40.

Just how good has Dermott been individual? Here’s how Toronto’s defencemen stack up in various 5v5 statistics this year:

That might be a bit much to read, but the gist of it is this: Dermott is picking up points (especially primary assists) more efficiently than just about any other defenceman on the team. He’s doing so while playing a large chunk of even-strength minutes (Justin Holl plays a very high event game which probably boosts his estimated TOI, which are based on goal data), and the Marlies are getting the lion’s share of goals while he’s on the ice.

All of this while being the team’s second-youngest defenceman, and paired with the youngest. If you stretch the scope to the rest of the league, Dermott’s estimated primary points per hour rank him fifth in the AHL (minimum 25 GP), and his on-ice Goals For Percentage ranks fifth as well. While the latter number comes with assistance (GF% relies on SH% and SV%, and elite goaltending has the Marlies sitting at a 102.4 PDO), it’s the best estimation we have at this level, and Dermott’s still well ahead of many of his peers in that regard (except for Marincin, who at this level appears to be a defensive deity at the moment).

To add to the intrigue, Dermott’s current run of even-strength production is the second highest (per-game) by any Marlies defenceman since the team began playing in 2005/06, only behind TJ Brennan’s Eddie Shore Award-winning 2015/16 season, and compares to years strung together at a similar age by the likes of Oliver Ekman-Larsson, John Carlson, Tyson Barrie, PK Subban, Justin Faulk, and Mike Green.

Yes, the last two games help that a lot, and yes, there are also a few Adam Clendening, Ryan Murphy, and Frank Corrado bubble-type players in that mix as well. But it’s still a company that has a rather high percentage of NHL success afforded to them over the past decade, and it’s especially impressive when you consider that Dermott is not, in any way, advertised as an offensive defenceman.

If anything, many will tell you that offensive production is the complementary element of his game and that it’s his ability to use the same intelligence and mobility that drives his scoring opportunities to box out the opposition that makes him as good as he is. Dermott has been one of the most relied upon pieces in Toronto’s penalty kill, which was ranked at the very top of the league until very recently, perhaps not coincidentally dipping thanks to his injury and Marincin’s call-up.

He’s also contributed to special teams in other ways. For one, he’s been an option on their powerplay, but he’s also tilted the calls in a positive direction as well. Dermott’s discipline issues were brought into question by a reporter in a post-game scrum in late November, to which Keefe had this response:

“He plays real tight and real aggressive on guys. He closes early, so he gets in a lot of situations where guys try to jump by him and things like that and he clips him. The interesting thing about Travis is that he has taken a lot of penalties, but he also leads our team in penalties drawn, so he’s actually on the positive end of things there. That’s something that we monitor, we like that. Obviously, we don’t like how many he’s taken, but we do like the fact that he’s coming out of the positive end of things.”

At the time, Dermott had played 19 games and taken 14 minor penalties, meaning that he would have had to have drawn at least 15 to get on the positive end. Unfortunately, the AHL doesn’t track who penalties were drawn by publicly, trying to track every call this year down by video at this point would take hours if not days, and I’m not looking to get arrested for breaking into Extra Skater, so we’re going to have to take Sheldon’s word for it here. But we can see that two of those penalties were coincidental minors and that his frequency of taking them has been decreasing. Dermott took nine minors in eight games in October, five in twelve games in November, and two in five in December. At the moment, he’s riding a four-game clean streak, which is the longest he’s sustained this season.

Given that Dermott’s core play traits (gap control, puck carrying, etc) haven’t changed much in that span, it’s probably a safe bet to guess that he’s still driving penalty differential now. That could be useful to the Leafs, who have the eight-worst penalty differential in the league at the moment.

To bring this all together, Dermott has done basically anything a defenceman of any age, let alone one that just turned 21 a few weeks ago, can do to get the attention of an NHL team. He’s produced at an elite level for his age and an excellent level for any age. He’s played an aggressive, hard-nosed game that checks the scouts’ checkboxes. He’s played against all sorts of types of competition types, feasting on the weak and shutting down the strong. He’s played the role of a veteran partner in a league where he’d still be the kid on most teams. He’s made the team objectively better at even strength, on the powerplay, and on the penalty kill.

In short, he’s probably been one of the most well-rounded, if not the most well-rounded defenceman in the American Hockey League this season. Whether or not that translates into playing time is anyone’s guess; I’m not sure that Mike Babcock is willing to dress five left-handed shots at this point and given that Andreas Borgman has, on most nights, looked excellent over the past few weeks, it might be hard to pull him out of the lineup. But, no matter whether he gets to play or not, this is certainly a call-up with merit; it would be tough to argue that any skater on the on the Marlies right now deserves the opportunity, however brief, as much as he does this year.

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