In the Toronto Maple Leafs management suite, there may have been a few satisfied smiles exchanged over the weekend.
This would not be to celebrate the Leafs' second consecutive shootout win on Saturday, a 3-2 decision over the visiting Vancouver Canucks. Management's concern is the long view, so the satisfaction came from the successful NHL debut of 21-year-old defenceman Travis Dermott.
Since defence is the spot on the Leafs' roster most in need of repair as the NHL's Feb. 26 trade deadline approaches, a successful transition by Dermott from the American Hockey League to the show would relieve a big headache for the Leafs. That, plus a smooth comeback from a suspected broken foot by second-year defenceman Nikita Zaitsev in the next couple of weeks.
By no means is this a declaration that Dermott represents a solution to the Leafs' defensive problems. But, if he proves he can help the Leafs, it does ease the pressure on general manager Lou Lamoriello and his sidekicks, Mark Hunter and Kyle Dubas, in finding help.
The consensus among the hockey cognoscenti is the Leafs need a veteran who shoots right and can play on their top-two defence pairs. Alas, that is not a commodity that can be had for a draft pick or an extra forward, or even a package of both plus more.
Dermott is here in large part because Leafs management needs to know just what is in its hand before the Feb. 26 poker game. Again, this is not to suggest Dermott himself will be part of a trade, but if Lamoriello knows one of the prospects has graduated to the NHL, then he gets to be more patient in building a blueline corps.
Even before Dermott played 12 minutes 3 seconds against the Canucks, earned his first NHL point with an assist on Tyler Bozak's tying goal, laid out Markus Granlund with a big hit and showed he has more than enough speed to play at the NHL level, the indicators were that he was ready to make the jump. Dermott was the leading scorer among defencemen on the Toronto Marlies farm team with 17 points in 26 games, he was a plus-15 and last week was named to the AHL's all-star game.
"I thought he was confident, moved the puck, skated good. He looks like he's got good hockey sense," Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said of Dermott's debut. "It looked like the situation didn't intimidate him at all."
Dermott, a left-hand shot, played most of the game with Roman Polak on the third pair (he replaced fellow rookie Andreas Borgman in the lineup), but was given a few shifts with No. 1 defenceman Morgan Rielly. The coach also said he planned to use Dermott in overtime – a huge stamp of approval in Babcock's world – but a Canuck penalty expired, putting the teams back to three-on-three and Babcock went back to his regulars, leaving Dermott with two seconds of ice-time in the extra session.
As for what lies ahead for the hometown boy (Dermott hails from nearby Newmarket, Ont.,), Babcock said, "go to practice the next time we practice and go from there. We're just going to watch him like all guys. Everyone comes to the National Hockey League and their first game, everything is great. Then the next game and the next game, over a period of time, we'll see if he's a regular NHL player. If he can help us, he'll play."
Dermott probably earned a spot in Monday's game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, with one of Borgman, Connor Carrick or Polak sitting out. When Zaitsev returns, the decision about which defenceman will go down to the Marlies will probably be between Dermott and Borgman, since both are still on entry-level contracts and do not have to clear league waivers first.
Borgman, 22, proved to be a decent, hard-hitting defenceman so far in his first NHL season. With his speed and puck-handling ability, Dermott has the promise to play higher in the lineup than Borgman, although that does not mean he gets to stay when Zaitsev returns.
But what it does mean is Lamoriello and Babcock know they have additional skill on defence that is ready should a sensible trade not present itself by the deadline.
And if Dermott should push his way into the lineup in place of either Carrick or Polak (the two most vulnerable to any permanent change), there is precedent for the Leafs taking a patchwork, young defence well into the playoffs.
In the 1998-99 season, the Leafs went to the Eastern Conference final with three youngsters among their six defencemen. Bryan Berard, 21, led in points with nine in 17 playoff games, while rookies Tomas Kaberle, 20, and Danny Markov, 23, also played major roles. The three older veterans were Dmitri Yushkevich, Sylvain Côté and Alexander Karpovtsev, all solid players. But on a talent basis, that group certainly was not ahead of the current one.
It can be argued that the 1999 conference finalists had the benefit of Curtis Joseph in goal to erase any youthful mistakes. But Frederik Andersen is showing he can do the same with the latest crop.