Babcock on Leafs' progress: 'There seems to be more juice in our group'
TORONTO – Travis Dermott hasn’t dealt with many major injuries in his career, so nothing could really prepare him for how tough it would be to step back into the Maple Leafs’ lineup after spending six months rehabbing a shoulder injury.
“You don’t lose [your game] but you kind of forget about it,” Dermott said after the Leafs’ optional morning skate on Thursday, ahead of facing the Vegas Golden Knights. “You forget what it’s like to be out there in the games. It’s easy enough to work as hard as you can in practice, but it’s never going to be the same. You’re out there for 45 seconds but it’s a hard 45, and it can get you pretty tired pretty quick. The first games are always a nice wake-up call.”
Dermott missed all of training camp and 13 regular-season games before returning for the Leafs’ last three tilts. While keeping his conditioning high was the defenceman's focus following his shoulder surgery last May, he conceded it’s never enough to make for a totally seamless transition back to game action.
Fortunately, he’s had partner Justin Holl to lean on through it all.
“Hollsy has been taking care of me,” Dermott said. “He’s been great for me, giving me the confidence to come out here and play my game and not worry about a D-partner that's not playing as well as I’d like him to. He’s far beyond that, so I’m playing catch-up, trying to keep up with him and he’s setting a great benchmark for me to come back to and get my feet under me.”
Dermott has yet to tally a point, but he is a plus-5 over three games, due in part to the number of offensive zone starts (80 per cent) he and Holl have been getting.
When they are in the defensive zone, Dermott finds working with Holl easy because of their shared history. Not only were they teammates from 2016-18 with the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies, Dermott and Holl were also partnered when Holl made his NHL debut on Jan. 31, 2018. Both players scored their first NHL goals in the outing.
The depth of that relationship is invaluable to Dermott now, and it’s something he didn’t have this time last season with his then-partner, KHL import Igor Ozhiganov.
“Last year with Ozi I had some times where it’s tough to communicate,” Dermott admitted. “But Hollsy and I have been buddies for a while now. I have a good feel of what he's going to do. I’ve seen him go back for pucks a million times already, so I have a pretty good feel, better than the forechecker, of what he’s going to do. We just keep learning from each other like we have been and I think it can only be a positive.”
An established rapport with Holl has already encouraged Dermott to try and flex his offensive muscles too, like he did with a beautiful end-to-end rush in Tuesday’s 3-1 win over Los Angeles. The play didn't result in a goal, but seeing Dermott trust himself again is a trend head coach Mike Babcock can get behind, so long as it doesn’t distract from more important responsibilities.
“If you’ve got skill to support it, you can make plays on the offensive blueline and get it by good shot-blockers and get it to the net. Those are all skills he has,” Babcock said. “But as a young player, no different than [Morgan Rielly] when Mo was coming up, it’s also figuring out how to play in your own zone so it's not going in. I think you saw his edges and his puck play last game. The big thing is sorting it out in the D-zone. When we analyze the game at the end, were you involved in scoring chances for or against? How does the math add up? Simple.”
Simplicity will be a top priority for Dermott and the rest of the Leafs as they try and establish a season-long three-game win streak against the visiting Golden Knights on Thursday.
Much of Toronto's focus going into the game is on snapping out of an early-season funk on special teams, where after 16 games both their power play (17.3 per cent, 20th overall) and penalty kill (75.4 per cent, 26th overall) have underachieved.
The Golden Knights, on the other hand, have terrific special teams, boasting the seventh-best power play (23.6 per cent) and second-best kill (89.8 per cent) in the NHL. The Leafs have been especially generous in giving up power-play chances this season, allowing at least one in every game so far, while the penalty kill has only held a man advantage off the scoresheet twice in the last 10 games.
Dermott believes that with the talent Toronto has on its special teams, “soon we'll be looking at it the other way where it’s, 'what are we doing so well that it’s working so well?’” And that can start on Thursday.
“Vegas has a good team. They're going to be excited to be in here and they're going to play well so we have to come together,” Dermott said. “We can ride off a little momentum we have now and try to build off our positives that we’ve had lately, try to figure out the stuff we still want to figure out, and try to have a good game, work hard and see what happens.”
Maple Leafs projected lineup against Vegas: