Travis Dermott, Mike Babcock, and Opportunity Missed

By Nick Richard

Travis Dermott has finally resumed skating with his teammates, albeit in a red sweater signifying that he’s not ready for contact or real game action just yet. He’s been out of the Leafs lineup since February 27th when he suffered a shoulder injury as a result of an awkward and somewhat questionable hit from Edmonton’s Brad Malone.

The timing of the injury couldn’t have been worse for the Leafs, or for Dermott. It occurred in the Leafs’ first game following the news that Jake Gardiner was out on a week to week basis with an injury of his own, putting the team down two of their best defensemen while trying to keep pace with the surging Bruins for home ice advantage in the playoffs. It also looked as though Dermott was in line to show he was capable of carrying more of the defensive load in Gardiner’s absence but instead he ended up joining Gardiner on the injured list.

Even before the Gardiner injury, it looked as though Dermott was being groomed for a larger role down the stretch. After holding down the left side on the third pair all season, Dermott was shifted to the right side in the seven games leading up to Gardiner hitting the shelf.

Opponent

Partner

TOI w/partner

CF/CA w/partner

Colorado (Feb. 12)

Gardiner

11:00

8 / 4

Vegas (Feb. 14)

Gardiner

11:43

14 / 9

Arizona (Feb. 16)

Gardiner

11:55

10 / 10

St. Louis (Feb. 19)

Gardiner/Muzzin

5:43/9:31

16 / 17

Washington (Feb. 21)

Muzzin

10:49

21 / 13

Montreal (Feb. 23)

Muzzin

11:46

14 / 14

Buffalo (Feb. 25)

Muzzin

13:07

15 / 14

5v5 – table via @NatStatTrick

We’ve seen Dermott get the odd shift with Rielly or Gardiner late in games when the Leafs were searching for a goal but this was the first time he was getting consistent minutes on the right side in his NHL career. It’s also worth noting that in two of those seven games, Dermott played more total minutes than both Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev.

For years now, the right side of the Leafs’ defensive unit has been an area of concern and it looked as though Dermott was going to be capable of providing a much needed boost at the position sooner rather than later. He’s got all the tools to succeed on his weak side; exceptionally quick feet and confidence in his decision making, strong lateral movement and edge work, smooth hands, and the ability to make plays on his backhand.

In last year’s playoffs, the Bruins did a good job of making the Leafs alter their breakout strategy by focusing their forecheck on puck movers Rielly, Gardiner and Dermott down the left side. It forced the right side defenders in Hainsey, Zaitsev and Polak to handle the puck more than the Leafs would have liked and their transition game suffered because of it. It seemed prudent to have one of their stronger puck moving defensemen shift over to the right side so opponents wouldn’t be able to dial in on that weakness so easily and Dermott certainly fit the bill. The former Erie Otter isn’t just effective in transitioning the puck up the ice either. In fact, he may be the best Leafs defender when it comes to stopping opposing breakouts or rushes before they even get started. Moving him over to the right side would create at least one balanced pairing that opposing forwards wouldn’t be able to exploit on either side.

Like last year when Mike Babcock began playing Andreas Johnsson more and Leo Komarov less leading up to the playoffs, I think we were going to see the same thing with Dermott as the season progressed. Now, with significant time missed while his shoulder healed and just a handful of games remaining in the regular season, it seems unlikely for him to return and get back up to full speed in time for Babcock to revisit the experiment of having him play on the right side before the playoffs get underway. Don’t forget that we’ve seen Matthews take some time to return to form after shoulder injuries in the last two seasons.

We know that it takes Babcock a long time to make changes regarding player usage and he won’t just throw Dermott into the deep end when he returns to the lineup. He’s going to stick with what he’s comfortable with as they get set to face the Bruins in the first round for the second straight year. That means Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev continuing to receive top four minutes on the right side, much to the chagrin of Leafs Nation.

Even in his usual role, Dermott’s return will be welcome news to the Leafs and their fans heading into the final days of the regular season but getting a long look at him on the right side would have been a big step towards the Leafs optimizing their defense before the playoffs. I still believe Dermott ends up on the right side eventually but it might not happen as soon as it looked like it was going to prior to him being forced to miss so much time. Babcock often talks about opportunity and being able to take advantage of it but with the unfortunate timing of the injury, it looks like a missed opportunity for both Babcock and Dermott as the clock counts down towards another playoff matchup with the Bruins.

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Author: TrueBlueLeafs

True Blue

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