With Jake Muzzin out, it's time for Travis Dermott to raise his level

It feels unfair to single out one of the few healthy members of the Toronto Maple Leafs defensive corps when it’s clear the entire unit will have to raise its level for the team to survive the absence of Jake Muzzin, who will miss the next four weeks with a broken hand.

But it does seem absolutely imperative that Travis Dermott answers the bell in the next month, doesn’t it?

In the midst of a largely disappointing season, and one that will carry him out of his entry-level contract, Dermott has failed to take the significant step many had earmarked for him. He has four goals and nine points on the season, while trending behind the regulars when crunching the worthwhile underlying data.

There are a few reasons to point toward for the lack of personal headway. One is that his start to the season was delayed after spending the entire summer rehabbing his surgically-repaired shoulder. And there’s also the fact that he’s toggled between partners for the most part after spending last year moving in lockstep with Igor Ozighanov before forming a strong partnership with Jake Gardiner. But he’s now reached the 50-game mark without appearing to build on his own individual performance or managing to raise the level of either Tyson Barrie, Justin Holl or Cody Ceci — all of whom he’s logged meaningful minutes with. So excuses, well, they are in short supply.

For Dermott himself, failing to drive play at a plus rate wouldn’t be so much of an issue if he was shouldering a clearly more difficult load. Unfortunately the minutes have remained somewhat sheltered and mostly static for Dermott, with him taking on a sixth-man-style deployment in the defensive rotation when Sheldon Keefe has had his full complement of defensemen.

Most recently, injuries have changed that for the 23-year-old. He’s received top-four usage since Morgan Rielly broke his foot blocking a shot versus the Florida Panthers six weeks ago. And in those minutes, at times, he’s looked like he hasn’t belonged.

Now he’s about to take on another significant increase in terms of minutes and function after another blocked shot broke the bones of an important contributor in Muzzin.

Dermott logged over 11 minutes in the third period alone versus the Tampa Bay Lightning after Muzzin exited, and he acquitted himself well as the Leafs were left to defend their lead with just five defensemen. While that type of burden shouldn’t be the expectation in every game moving forward without Rielly, Muzzin and to a lesser extent Ceci, Dermott will be called upon to do more than what’s typically asked.

Dermott skated with Holl on Wednesday at practice in what would be considered, at least, the working top pair. Behind them it was Barrie and Rasmus Sandin, while Timothy Liljegren, Martin Marincin and the newly-acquired Calle Rosen were working out as well.

While he’s experienced a speed wobble in his breakout season, Holl has been able to form one half of a reasonably effective shutdown pair for the Leafs across large stretches this season.

Now it’s Dermott’s responsibility to come in and do the same.

The Leafs’ season might just depend on it.

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