The Toronto Maple Leafs and defenseman Travis Dermott have agreed to terms on a one-year contract worth $874k (roughly the same salary as his qualifying offer), the club announced on Friday.

The soon-to-be 24 year old will be an arbitration-eligible RFA next season. Dermott would have been hoping to better his QO with his 2020-21 salary, but with the squeeze under the flat cap, it’s no surprise he came in under a million on a one-year deal here.

It will be a seminal year for Dermott’s future with the Leafs organization when we consider the following:

  • Partially due to injuries, he’s only played 157 NHL games despite graduating partway through the 2017-18 season. He needs to prove he can put together a healthy and consistent season or he’ll be drowned out by the internal competition.
  • He’s got more competition than ever before with Zach Bogosian, Mikko Lehtonen, Rasmus Sandin, Calle Rosen, Martin Marincin, and Timothy Liljegren all vying for the final two spots in the top six.
  • Kyle Dubas has indicated a plan is in place to audition him at right defense — where he spent some time as a Marlie under Sheldon Keefe — to see if he can be part of the solution on that side of the depth chart.

The Leafs could have tried to get Dermott locked in for a year or two more at a bigger AAV and bet on the player’s growth, but that didn’t make much sense when you consider all of the above. If Dermott is drowned out in the depth chart and doesn’t emerge as a valuable long-term piece on the Leafs blue line this season, they would have him locked in at a number that likely would have made the asset difficult to extract any value from by way of trade. There is too much uncertainty and too many other options emerging at the position at this stage to make that kind of bet if you’re the Leafs, and the one-year, $874k option saves on the team’s 2020-21 cap commitments.

Travis Dermott’s 2020-21 Outlook

After an up and down start to the 2019-20 campaign coming off of an injury-impacted offseason, Dermott gave the team reason to believe he was undertaking a big leap forward in his development under his former Marlies coach, Sheldon Keefe, before the pandemic pause in March. With both Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin absent due to injury, he had played significant (tough) minutes in the few weeks prior to the suspension of the season.

In the Leafs’ final game before the 2019-20 regular season shut down for good, Tampa Bay’s Kucherov, Point and Palat line split the shots on goal and were held scoreless at 5v5 in 10 minutes head-to-head with Dermott and partner Justin Holl.

The week previous, the pairing matched up against Pettersson, Miller, and Toffoli with nearly identical results — while the pair was out-possessed, the shots were even and the Canucks’ big line was held scoreless at even strength in 12+ minutes head-to-head.

Dermott – Holl’s best night came against Florida in the game after Muzzin’s injury in Tampa Bay — 11-3 in shot attempts, 6-2 in shots, and 1-0 in goals at 5v5 up against the Barkov, Huberdeau, and Dadonov line.

Over 93 five-on-five minutes together spanning the six games, the pairing managed to tread water in both shots and goals share (1 goal for, 1 against) while out-chancing the opposition by a fair margin — 43-32.

When Muzzin went down injured in the play-in series against Columbus, Keefe turned briefly to the Dermott and Holl pairing in hopes that the pair could hold its own again as a stop-gap option. After the team gave up a 3-0 lead and lost in overtime of Game 4 with Dermott looking a little out of his element — including a 3-3 goal that saw Dermott caught up ice, albeit Kasperi Kapanen was mainly to blame on the play — Keefe turned to a Martin Marincin-Justin Holl pairing and moved Dermott back onto the sheltered bottom pairing with Tyson Barrie.

For Dermott, the goal this season is to show more consistency in his play and health and to earn more of his coach’s trust, particularly if he’s given a good opportunity to play the right side. He won’t receive any power-play time with Morgan Rielly, Mikko Lehtonen, TJ Brodie, and Jake Muzzin ahead of him in the pecking order, so he’ll need to prove he can be a reliable 5v5 defender and occasional penalty killer.

The skill set and athleticism are there; he’s got good wheels that allow him to gap up well and retrieve pucks quickly, he’s competitive, and he can move the puck. But he’ll need to play a steadier game more consistently — i.e. be calmer at times, play within himself, and let the game come to him — and pick his spots better on when to be aggressive in the neutral and offensive zones if he’s going to earn more minutes and responsibility.

TJ Brodie is a good example and mentor given the kind of career the Leafs are hoping Dermott could still have in front of him — a leftie who can play the right, not the tallest defender but a mobile defenseman with a powerful lower half who defends well with his feet and his stick.  By this point in his career, though, it’s worth noting that Brodie was a regular 20+ minute player and power-play asset for the Flames.

The urgency for Dermott to assert himself as a valuable long-term piece on the Leafs’ blue line is high entering the season. In that respect, count Dermott among the many within the depth of the Leafs roster with a lot to prove in 2020-21.