Dermott knocking on door to Maple Leafs’ top four

Dermott knocking on door to Maple Leafs’ top four
One Maple Leafs storyline that’s popular these days goes something like this: Travis Dermott is giving fans a glimpse of what the future will look like without Jake Gardiner.

Dermott is indeed the heir apparent for the next opening in the top four on defence, and there could be two holes to fill with Gardiner and Ron Hainsey unsigned past this season.

Leafs defenceman Travis Dermott — keeping the heat on Jake DeBrusk of the Bruins in a recent game — showed skill and strength in heavy minutes against the Coyotes on Sunday.  (Claus Andersen / GETTY IMAGES)

For now, though, Leafs coach Mike Babcock clearly prefers to continue to lean on Gardiner, when he’s healthy. He missed Sunday’s 4-2 loss to the Arizona Coyotes with back spasms and remains questionable for Wednesday’s date with the Washington Capitals, but the coach hinted at an early return.

“If Jake can go, Jake’s goin,” Babcock said Monday.

Wednesday’s game will be the Leafs’ last before all-star weekend in San Jose. In total, they will have seven days off between games.

On Sunday, Dermott slid into Gardiner’s spot, scored a goal and made good use of his strength in 21:05 of ice time, his third-most of the season. Gardiner, meanwhile, was booed by the home crowd during a loss to the Avalanche last week.

Dermott’s youth, performance and affordable contract will factor into the Leafs’ decision making the rest of the way this season, with Gardiner headed for free agency while the club also tries to work out long-term deals with stars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner within the salary cap.

For his part, the 22-year-old Dermott is saying the right things while continuing to aim high.

“You want to be top four, you want to be top two. On a personal note, you always want to be climbing up,” said Dermott, a second-round draft pick in 2015.

“We miss Jake a lot. He’s an awesome player. But it’s like when (Matthews) was out. This team has a lot of depth and there’s opportunities for other guys to step up. Your team can be a better team from those opportunities, and I feel in the long run those opportunities help our team.”

Dermott is on course for a real shot at a prime role by next season, something he’s been work hard to make a reality ever since he started playing for the AHL’s Marlies three seasons ago. An offensive force in his OHL days with Erie, Dermott went to work with the Marlies’ coaching staff on his penalty killing. Now, Leafs assistant coach D.J. Smith is helping him refine those skills at the NHL level.

“I feel like I’ve played against a lot of top guys in this league now,” said Dermott, who also saw a bit of power-play time in Sunday’s game. “I feel like a guy who gets on (special teams) and three-on-three in overtime. A big part of all that is (scouting) that you do before games, focusing on your opposition for that night. You have to work hard after that and be ready.”

Added Babcock: “(Dermott) has got to continue to learn the game, read the game. The better he does at that, the more he’s going to play and the more efficient he’s going to be for us … He has an opportunity to be a real good player for us.”
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