TSN Toronto Reporter Kristen Shilton reports on the Maple Leafs, who held a scrimmage and short practice on their third day of training camp Wednesday at Ford Performance Centre
If Travis Dermott was surprised to find himself outside the top six to start Maple Leafs’ training camp, he isn’t saying. What the blueliner will cop to is knowing that, with the right level of consistency, he can make his way back there.
"I think [it’s] just settling into my game," Dermott told reporters on a Zoom call Wednesday. "I know what my game looks like when I'm playing my best and I think just sticking to those [things]. Not pushing too far out of what I know are my strengths, understanding what game situations are like and knowing when to pick my spots. I think that's my next step, and it's felt pretty good in camp so far."
To date, Dermott has been part of the Leafs’ fourth defensive pairing with Rasmus Sandin, while newcomers Mikko Lehtonen and Zach Bogosian have overtaken him into the third pairing slots. Adding those pieces in the off-season was meant to give Toronto’s blueline a much-needed boost and, because of it, players like Dermott will have to work that much harder to see the ice.
"We've talked to Travis about the fact that we feel like our defence, and our depth on defence, has improved," said head coach Sheldon Keefe. "And if you're someone that was sitting previously in the 5, 6, 7, 8 spots, that's going to have an effect."
Dermott ranked sixth overall in ice time amongst Toronto’s defencemen last season, averaging 17:19 per night while producing four goals and 11 points in 56 appearances. Keefe stressed that the Leafs do know what Dermott is capable of, and with only three camp sessions under their belt, nothing is set in stone for Toronto. There’s still plenty of time for Dermott to make a move, if he’s ready to do so.
"No final determinations have been made on how it'll sort out," Keefe said. "We know with Derms, he can play either side and he can move up and down the lineup in terms of responsibilities. We're just looking for an increased level of consistency and kind of a reset for him, but his skill set remains very strong and one that we believe in."
Dermott has taken these challenges to heart, and should use them as motivation going forward. Beyond just looking for playing time this season, Dermott also has another contract negotiation on the horizon after signing a one-year, $874,125 extension with the Leafs as a restricted free agent in the fall.
"I don't expect there to be a point where I don't have to prove myself in my career," he said. "I think you always want to prove yourself. Especially in this camp, you’re jumping into it and it's high intensity right away and that takes a lot of the focus of your brain. It's such a high tempo and you're focused on that more than any personal stuff. It's just jumping into scrimmages and you're facing guys that are just as excited as you are to get the season going fast so it's a lot of just team focus more than on one person right now."
And there’s always a chance Dermott remains outside the top six to start but still finds his way into game action early when Keefe deploys the seven defencemen set he’s been mulling.
"I don't think we will start that way [in an 11-7 look], but I think it's an option that we can go to with the increased depth that we have on defence so that may benefit us at different times," Keefe said. "I think the traditional 12 and six to start with is what we'll focus on, but we used 11 and seven at times last season as well and I've done that throughout my coaching career so we've got different options there that we'll utilize when we deem it right."
There’s one thing Keefe would like to see a little more of from Mitch Marner, something that might fall under the category of killer instinct.
"It’s something I've talked to him about and communicated that I'd like to see from him, to take it upon himself to challenge the net, challenge the defence," Keefe said. "He’s got so much speed and creativity, you’d like to see him attack the net more frequently to generate chances for himself or rebound opportunities for others or to draw more penalties."
Keefe saw some of that from Marner in Wednesday’s scrimmage, where the winger scored once in Team Blue’s 6-0 drubbing of Team White. Last season, Marner ranked second on the Leafs in points (67), but was just fifth overall in goals (16), an area Keefe could definitely see him improving.
"He scored a great goal today, just taking it upon himself to take it to the net and finish," Keefe said. "And there were a couple other instances where he did the same thing. I think that just the consistency that he can bring to both sides of the game, offensively and defensively, [is huge]. He'll become more of a shooting threat and adding that element to his game, I think it's important no matter who he's playing with. I think there's times where he can look to attack himself and that was nice to see."
Since camp started on Monday, Marner has been on a line with Auston Matthews and Joe Thornton, a trio that defenceman Justin Holl has already deemed "formidable."
Keefe’s been happy, too, not just with how that line is shaking out but the way Marner is continually rising to the occasion.
"Obviously, expectations are quite high with him," Keefe said. "But he looked really good today and again that line was very good. It looks like he's got good legs and good energy and is confident and certainly looks ready to play for real."
The Leafs went through two days of hard practices to start the week, and Keefe hoped they’d translate the good habits developed there into Wednesday’s inter-squad scrimmage. But that didn’t quite work out as planned.
"I would say that it didn't really reach the same level that we've seen in our practice drills and things like that," Keefe admitted. "We had a drop-off in some of our details and physicality so we want to clean that up going forward and we'll talk about that."
The positive for Keefe was that his players got to experience a game-like atmosphere again and were really competing, albeit just against one another. And Team Blue still delivered a 6-0 thrashing of Team White despite the inconsistencies evident to Keefe, with Matthews, Marner, Wayne Simmonds, Jason Spezza, Joey Anderson and Morgan Rielly all lighting the lamp.
"We know we have a short amount of time before we start playing for real," Keefe said. "So we've got to do better than we did today in that regard. We also practiced our shootouts today. We had one at the end of each of our halves that we had in the scrimmage itself. So that was nice to see that and to get both the goalies and our prime shooters that we intend to use in the shoot out the reps there."
Keefe tapped Matthews, Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, Jimmy Vesey and Spezza for the shootout portions.
One of the off-season activities that kept Ilya Mikheyev busy this year was shooting a commercial spot for Campbell’s Soup, a somewhat daunting experience for the first-time brand ambassador that made one thing very clear:
"Hockey is much easier."
Thankfully, Mikheyev is back at his day job and fully healthy to boot. He missed all but 39 games of his rookie season last year after suffering lacerations to his wrist caused by New Jersey Devils’ forward Jesper Bratt’s errant skate blade in a game on Dec. 27.
Rehabbed and ready to go when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, Mikheyev didn't return to the ice until Toronto’s five-game stint in a qualifying round series against Columbus during last summer’s postseason tournament. In the Leafs' losing effort, Mikheyev failed to register a single point, and that disappointment alone taught him a lot.
"I'd never played in the NHL so now I feel like I know and understand how we can be better and how I can do better and how I can help in the future," he said. "In the playoffs, it's much better than the regular season and everything is better, everything is more difficult [with the] physicality especially."
Mikheyev can pass along those lessons now to another Leafs’ rookie, and his former Russian national team teammate, Alexander Barabanov.
Using Leafs’ development coach Nik Antropov as a translator, Barabanov said Mikheyev has been very helpful since he signed a one-year, entry-level contract with Toronto last April, but he’s working to become more independent as well.
"It's really important at the beginning to have Ilya there in the dressing room and if I need something or I’m struggling with something, he can ask for both of us," Barabanov said through Antropov. "At the same time, I'm really learning English hard. I want to communicate in the dressing room with the other guys as well."
Keefe has Barabanov currently situated on the fourth line with Spezza and Simmonds, a pair of veterans who have also taken Barabanov under their wing.
"Spezza and Simmonds are talking to him lots to make sure that they've explained the drills a second or third time in practice and making sure that he knows what's going on," Keefe said. "And Mikheyev, at the same time, has been really good about helping Barabanov as well."
Leafs’ lines at Wednesday’s scrimmage: