NIAGARA FALLS — Assume Travis Dermott and Igor Ozighanov will form the Maple Leafs’ third defence pair if you like, but do so at your peril.
The man who ultimately will make the decisions on the Leafs’ fifth and sixth spots on the blue line, coach Mike Babcock, wouldn’t go that far on Sunday after the team’s three-day encampment at the Gale Centre came to an end.
“I don’t know,” Babcock said. “We put three pairs together. They are all kind of in the same boat and we will see what happens.”
Included in Babcock’s reference were the duos of Connor Carrick and Calle Rosen, and Andreas Borgman and Justin Holl.
Dermott demonstrated during 37 regular-season games with the Leafs last season, when he had 13 points and averaged 16 minutes a night, that he appeared to be ready for a full-time role, or one with greater responsibility.
For Babcock, it’s more about applying the brakes and evaluating Dermott through the pre-season, even though the young rearguard didn’t fall off the map in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs against the Boston Bruins and later helped the Toronto Marlies win the Calder Cup.
During his scrum with reporters on Sunday, Babcock gave Dermott a little verbal nudge.
“I want him to act like he is trying to make the team,” Babcock said. “So (bring) intensity and jump and compete.
“Young guys sometimes when (they) arrive what happens is (they) think: ‘I have arrived now.’ But the other guys want your job. It’s about getting better each and every day.
“I think him and Johnny (forward Andreas Johnsson) are both in the same boat that way. They went down, they won a championship and yet, it’s the National Hockey League, and you have to win a job.”
Dermott doesn’t need the reminder. He won’t turn 22 until Dec. 22, and carries himself with a bit of carefree manner, but knows there will be competition with the other young Leafs defencemen each time he steps on to the ice in the pre-season games.
“I don’t think you can come in expecting that a job is waiting for you,” Dermott said. “But I think with my experience last year, I gained some confidence, for sure, coming in here maybe a little more comfortable, knowing what I have to do to be successful.”
Dermott might interpret it as a positive that he was the one given the task of playing initially with the right-shooting Ozighanov, who will need as much help as possible as he makes the transition to playing in North America. Dermott’s wish, not surprisingly, is to remain with Ozighanov once the pre-season games begin, and the two are trying to communicate as well as possible, even with the latter finding his way and taking English lessons.
“He moves the puck well and he as some good vision and he is a good skater as well,” Dermott said of the 25-year-old Russian.
“It’s fun playing with him and I wouldn’t complain if we kept playing together as we move forward.”
Said Babcock of his first impression of Ozighanov: “Has a great stick, head’s up all the time. Still has to figure out that any time you come from the big rink to the little rink, it’s quick. So it will take him a little while, but he looks like an intelligent player.”
With the way Dermott played last season, and the potential he showed, few observers believe he will always be only a depth defenceman in the NHL. At some point, Dermott should earn the right to be a top-four blue-liner.
He refuses to go down that line of thinking now.
“You always want to move up, right?” Dermott said. “If you get comfortable with where you are in your career, you are going to plateau and then eventually you start going downhill pretty quick.
“You want to keep pushing yourself and keep expecting more from yourself and never be happy with where you’re at, so I think if I dig into my brain, I will see some potential that is higher than where I am now, but there is always room to improve.”
Those are the kinds of words Babcock would like to hear. It’s on Dermott’s shoulders to cement his spot on the Leafs roster in the next several weeks.
TAVARES TERRIFIC IN TIGHt
NIAGARA FALLS — As much as the Maple Leafs figured they knew plenty about the hockey player that John Tavares is, training camp serves as a reminder that the 27-year-old star has some tricks to unveil.
Count defenceman Travis Dermott in the group of those who are getting up to speed with their new teammate.
“The puck control in tight is just elite,” Dermott said, emphasizing the last word.
“I remember (on Saturday) at one point (in the scrimmage), he was going in on a one-on-four over the other team’s blue line and I’m like: ‘What can he do here? No chance he can do anything.’
“He flipped it to his backhand, flipped it over a couple of guys’ sticks and ended up getting by them into the corner, pulled up and made a play.
“Just these little plays he makes in tight, with the puck control he has, is something that is really interesting to watch and fun to play with, for sure.”
As well as making some fine individual plays, Tavares and Mitch Marner showed growing chemistry during the three days at the Gale Centre, as one might expect from a couple of supremely talented players.
“He is in and out of holes very quickly,” Tavares said of Marner. “Sometimes, I know he is in some spots and then all of a sudden he is somewhere else. It’s a great asset of his and just so much harder to defend.”