Lou Lamoriello mentioned in his conference call yesterday afternoon that there was “one [Toronto Marlies defenceman] in particular” the organization is looking at as potentially NHL-ready for next season.

We’re not inside Lou’s head, but anyone who follows the Marlies closely quickly thought of Travis Dermott.

Earlier in the day on Leafs Lunch, Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe suggested Dermott is the best 20-year-old defenceman in the AHL:

“Travis Dermott was outstanding through the whole series and played against their best people all the way through… When I look around at players that we see in the Eastern Conference that we play against every day, I don’t know that there is a better 20-year-old defenceman that is playing in our league. That is a really encouraging sign, obviously. He’s got a bright future.”

We’d be remiss not to mention Andrew Nielsen (who is also 20 years old) in the conversation — his scoring achievements, particularly in the first half of the season, were impressive — but Dermott was the Marlies’ most consistent defenceman, and their most reliable at even strength, in a season where Keefe dressed 14 different blue liners.

“He frankly has been pretty consistent for us,” Keefe said. “He’s reliable and consistent, and moves the puck extremely well.”

Travis Dermott’s rookie year

Dermott’s rookie season hasn’t been without some trials and tribulations. After a positive start to his first year, his season was disrupted just eight games in due to an ankle injury sustained against the Albany Devils on October 29, sidelining him for five weeks.

The nature of his injury — reported to be a high-ankle sprain — meant Dermott struggled to find his feet coming back. It took him around a month to find some semblance of his pre-injury form, coinciding with Toronto’s toughest stretch of the season (eight losses in ten games). Productive offensively during his junior career, Dermott also had to wait until his 26th game to score his first AHL goal.

Paired up with Viktor Loov until Loov was traded to New Jersey on February 18, the partnership seemed to benefit the rookie rearguard in some ways and hinder him in others.

Streetwise in the ways of the AHL, Loov was a safety net when opponents tried to take liberties with Dermott early in the season. On the other hand, the Swedish defenceman was undoubtedly struggling with his own game and too often proved a liability inside his own zone. That put some unwanted pressure on Dermott, leading to some mistakes by the rookie in trying to compensate.

After the trade, Dermott was partnered with Ty Stanton, Willie Corrin, Justin Holl, Alex Gudbranson and Frank Corrado at different times.

“We’ve challenged him in terms of giving him lots of opportunity and different looks with different players,” Keefe told TSN1050. “He’s responded to all of those.”

Dermott and Corrado proved a dynamic partnership, but it was broken up after just eight games due to the deadline trade with Pittsburgh that brought back Steve Oleksy. Oleksy and Dermott have been inseparable since the veteran defenceman arrived in Toronto. Much like how Andrew Campbell nurtured Rinat Valiev through his first professional season, the highly-experienced Oleksy has been a positive influence on Dermott — and vice versa.

“Travis is a guy that can play both ends of the rink,” said Oleksy after a two-point game against Manitoba in mid-March. “I think it allows me to feel more comfortable getting involved [offensively].”

Five goals and 24 points in his rookie season may not seem like a fantastic return when compared to Nielsen’s 39 points and 14 goals. However, Dermott’s total was achieved in just 59 games, with 15 of his points coming at even strength, which ranked him eighth among U21 players in even strength points per game. His production has also been trending in the right direction as he’s gained a handle on the league.

Top 10 AHL U21 Defencemen - 5v5 Pts/Game

NameTeamGP5v5 Pts5v5P/GP
Julius HonkaTEX50160.32
Vince DunnCHI72220.31
Rasmus AnderssonSTK54170.31
Travis SanheimLV76220.29
Oliver KylingtonSTK60170.28
Andrew NielsenTOR74190.26
Haydn FleuryCHA69180.26
Travis DermottTOR59150.25
Alexandre CarrierMIL72170.24
Joel HickettsGR73170.23

After scoring his first career AHL goal against Bridgeport on January 21, it sparked a spell of production that included three goals and eight points in the following 11 games. In the 26-game span between January 14 and March 28, Dermott tallied four goals and 16 points. While he finished the regular season with just the one assist in his final 11 games, he tallied four points in four games versus Albany in Round 1 of the playoffs.

“An injury set him back, but early in the season he was playing really well,” said Keefe. “He’s back to playing that way now.”

Offensively, Dermott has been working on getting his shots through traffic and generating better scoring chances. The fruits of his labour were in evident during the most recent playoff game against Albany, when he was responsible for nine of Toronto’s 60 shots on goal.

Below, Dermott finds some space at the top of the left circle to receive a pass from Kerby Rychel before firing a pinpoint shot by Kevin Rooney and past MacKenzie Blackwood.

His shot from the point in Game Three found its way through traffic, allowing Kasperi Kapanen to collect the rebound and set up Brendan Leipsic for the goal.

Dermott has also spent time on the penalty kill this season and scored his first professional shorthanded goal against Albany on February 11. The Newmarket native has been an asset when down a man; with a low panic threshold, Dermott is able to run down vital extra seconds by either setting up a play or holding onto possession.

As the season has progressed, Dermott has shown more confidence making an outlet pass or carrying the puck across all three lines should space be afforded to him. It is undoubtedly the key to his game at even strength, with Toronto focused on playing a possession-based game that encourages a high level of involvement in the attack from the defencemen.

“We don’t spend a lot of time in our end when he’s out there,” Keefe said last week.

Ready for the Jump?

Dermott progressed in an almost trial by fire, learning to adjust to the AHL pace and increased physicality of the AHL. His strength is a dynamic skating ability combined with heads up playmaking skill, and he exhibited those with timely, simple outlets and complicated stretch passes. Skating skills should allow for more rushing and puckhandling, however, he seemed to conform more to a team concept of moving the puck up ice, and supporting the rush when he could. Struggled initially with some of the AHL physicality at times, but learned to use escape maneuvers (good edges, timely passes and clear avoidance) and teammates as options to move the play along instead of absorbing physical play. Showcased his skillset enough to warrant a potential graduation to the Leafs in 2017-18. Player to watch.

– Scouting report by Gus Katsaros (@KatsHockey)

In the above scouting report submitted to MLHS, Gus Katsaros mentioned Dermott’s ability to adjust to the physical rigors of the AHL. Not the tallest defenceman, Dermott is sturdy (5’11, 215 pounds) and has surprised many opponents with his strength at a tender age, whether that’s winning battles along the boards, laying hits on bigger forwards, or dropping the gloves on two occasions. The physical maturity is there.

Despite Dermott’s excellent form in the post-season thus far, there is still some work to be done on the defensive side of his game. Like all rookies, he’s had to adjust to the extra speed and skill that graduating to the professional game entails. In that respect, his decision-making inside his own end still requires honing. Dermott’s overall mobility is a big plus to his game and it helps him recover when caught, but the step up to the next level is far less forgiving.

Current Toronto management has shown themselves loath to rush prospects and recent Leafs history hasn’t been kind to young defencemen hoisted into the NHL before they were ready. He could certainly benefit from a second year in the AHL with the opportunity to log extra ice-time and special team assignments he likely wouldn’t receive in the NHL.

If his development continues on its current trajectory, Dermott will no doubt be wearing a Maple Leafs jersey before his entry-level contract expires. And it appears he’ll get his first good look at camp in the Fall.