By DAVID SHOALTS
Tuesday, January 16, 2018
With a significant trade in the next six weeks looking more and more like a longshot these days, there are probably just two changes coming to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the latter part of the NHL season.
Neither of these changes is a sure thing, just probable based on head coach Mike Babcock's recent lineup choices, including Tuesday night's, when the Leafs end their five-day break against the St. Louis Blues.
If Travis Dermott continues to play the way he did in his first two games since being called up from the Toronto Marlies farm team, he is likely to break out of Babcock's three-man rotation and win a fulltime job on the Leafs defence.
The second change is less likely, at least in betting terms, but Frederik Gauthier has a chance to bump Dominic Moore aside and become the fourth-line centre.
Both players were part of the regular rotation on Monday afternoon when the Leafs reconvened after their break.
Dermott, 21, worked out on the team's third pairing with veteran Roman Polak, while fellow rookie Andreas Borgman was the odd man out. Gauthier was at centre on the fourth line between Matt Martin and Connor Brown. Connor Carrick, the third member of the rotation with Dermott and Borgman, played with Jake Gardiner. After Dermott was promoted to the NHL team 10 days ago, he did enough of the things Babcock likes well enough to earn consideration as a regular. He was as fast on his feet as advertised, but the eyeopening part of his game was his hockey sense.
It is the rare rookie who has the confidence to play aggressively at both bluelines, but Dermott has that kind of moxie.
He does not hesitate to linger a few extra seconds at the offensive blueline to choke off an opposition rush and create more offence for the Leafs. At the other end of the ice, he is not afraid to step up as opposing forwards are entering the zone and take away their space.
While the rest of their teammates were enjoying the NHL Players' Associationmandated break, Dermott and Gauthier, whose latest stint with the Leafs began Jan. 2, were sent back to the American Hockey League's Marlies. They stayed sharp by playing twice on their weekend road set against the Charlotte Checkers.
"I didn't feel too fatigued after the first couple of games [with the Leafs] so I think going down there was the right call," Dermott said.
His role most of this season with the Marlies was different than it is with the Leafs, since he was the farm team's best defenceman. So he was sent back to the AHL team with a list of instructions from the coaches about what he needed to sharpen up.
"You try to make sure you're not trying to do too much," Dermott said. "I admit I caught myself trying to do too much in a couple of those games. You try to go down there and work on the things they want you to focus on." If Dermott and Gauthier do push their way into the regular lineup, it will be a sign the Leafs' development system, long an institutional weakness, is finally working. Both players have been serving a long apprenticeship since they were drafted by the Leafs (Dermott in 2015, Gauthier in 2013), and neither looked out of his depth this month in the NHL.
"Coming up and going down, it's pretty seamless," Dermott said. "They teach us pretty much the same stuff they teach the guys up here."
The adjustment from the AHL to the NHL is more difficult for defencemen, who need to learn that side of the game much quicker. Aside from the speed, Dermott says the biggest difference between the leagues is the quality of the big players.
"I think the big guys down there might not have as much skill," he said. "The big guys that have skill down there move up pretty quick. The guys up here will be big and they will have skill.
"I've got to make sure I box guys out and get in between guys and not get beat off the wall."
Something else was different when Dermott returned to his stall in the Leafs' dressing room after the break. Management decreed he switch from No. 3, which he wore after being called up Jan. 3, to 23. No reason was given for the change, although former captain Dion Phaneuf wore No. 3 until he was traded to the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 9, 2016.
"Three, 23, 8, 57, 48 - I've had a few numbers now," Dermott said with a laugh.
"No, I just came in and it was there. I'm not really sure of the meaning, but whatever.
I'll just go with it."
Also new was the slogan along the top of the walls in the dressing room. It now reads, "It's a privilege. Not a right." The saying is a reference to playing for Toronto and was often attributed to Leafs great Johnny Bower. It was mentioned several times during his memorial after Bower died on Dec. 26. Babcock said he took note of the saying and had it painted on the walls.
"Obviously John was a special guy," Babcock said. "That's what jumped out to me. It's a great place to play hockey, coach hockey."