In the wake of the Toronto Maple Leafs early exit for the fourth year in a row, GM Kyle Dubas faces another offseason of uncertainty and a fan base eager for positive results. In spite of expressing confidence in the club’s core group, Dubas faces a number of decisions necessitated by contracts expiring and a need for improvement. The Leafs got started reshuffling the roster with the trade of Kasperi Kapanen to Pittsburgh last month, but more changes may be coming.
The area of much focus is the right side of the blueline with Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie headed for unrestricted free agency. With Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin occupying the left side of the top four and signed for multiple seasons, youngster Rasmus Sandin likely making the NHL roster next season, and the addition of KHL free agent Mikko Lehtonen, the question before Dubas is where does Travis Dermott fit into the Leafs blueline equation.
The 23-year-old was a second-round pick in 2015 and completed his third year in the NHL last season playing mostly a bottom-pairing role. Dermott is a gifted skater, possesses good instincts, had the best plus/minus (+14) among Toronto defenders during the regular season, and was pressed into a top-four role when injuries struck the Leafs blueline before the pause, but his offensive numbers (4 goals, 7 assists in 56 games) were not up to expectations.
12 years as a Leaf and the 11th captain in franchise history, Darryl Sittler’s class and leadership replicated those of other Ontario-born predecessors like Apps, Kennedy and Armstrong. A milestone 70th birthday today, congrats Darryl ! #leafsforeverpic.twitter.com/YlVeO3OhQK
In the qualifying round vs. Columbus, Dermott once again moved up after the loss of Muzzin in Game 2, averaged nearly 19 minutes per game, and had an assist in the series loss to the Blue Jackets.
The left-handed Dermott has played the right side in Junior, the AHL and at times with the Leafs, and could replace Ceci or Barrie in the top four, but Sandin, Liljegren, and Lehtonen (who are on entry-level contracts) also can.
Dubas was proactive during the season in getting defensemen locked up, signing Muzzin and Holl to multi-year extensions and adding Lehtonen to the fold, but the cost of Dermott on a new contract may be a factor in whether he stays with the Leafs or is part of a trade to acquire a right-hander capable of playing in the top four.
Dubas may try to get Dermott signed to a bridge deal coming off his entry-level contract in the same salary range as Holl ($2 Million AAV), pushing off a decision of whether to pay him big money down the road. Locking up the fleet-footed defender to a long-term deal would mean a significantly higher salary for someone whose level of performance has not yet been determined, which might cause the Leafs salary cap issues when it comes time to re-sign Rielly before he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2022.
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