The puck-moving defenseman is making a big splash in the NHL, but he never skipped a step of development on his way up
Defenseman Travis Dermott has been pretty good in his first nine games for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He’s one of the team’s best possession players, the squad has only lost one regulation game with him in the lineup and he just scored his first NHL goal. But no NHL story happens overnight. Dermott’s journey includes a summer league in the Toronto suburbs that helped him prepare for the next step.
The Carnevale League is run by Frank Carnevale, a former NCAA player who now works for the OHL’s Barrie Colts. His son Taylor (who played for the Colts and several other junior teams), is also involved and every summer the circuit attracts a mixture of talent, from kids on the cusp of OHL careers to older junior-aged players who like the competition.
“Ryan Ellis would come at 4:30pm and play four straight games,” said Frank Carnevale. “He wanted that conditioning.”
Players don’t typically hop around teams like that and the sides have a great development angle to them. A number of OHL franchises will have informal squads in the league, where their rookies and free agents can prepare for training camp. Then you’ll get the established players like Ellis who join up for the good competition. Some of the Carnevale League’s other alumni include Connor McDavid, Tyler Seguin, Ryan O’Reilly and Mark Scheifele.
Dermott, who has known McDavid since they were kids in Newmarket, Ont., played with No. 97 on an Erie summer squad that also featured Dylan Strome. He had previously played with a Jr. A Newmarket Hurricanes entry when he was still deciding whether to go NCAA or OHL.
“As a young guy, if you’re physically mature that league can be a good thing for you,” Dermott said. “There’s a couple of knuckleheads, but that happens anywhere you go. It’s a good developmental league for the summer, there’s some good skill.”
Connor Brown played some games for Erie in the Carnevale League the year prior and agreed that the older, heavier competition can really help a young kid in the OHL. Brown got to see Dermott flourish as a player in Erie when the smart, mobile defenseman joined his veteran teammate and now Dermott has hooked up with Brown again in the NHL.
“I remember when he first came onto our team as a 17-year-old and jumped right into the lineup,” Brown said. “He was making plays right away, just like he has done here. He’s got great feet, he’s a really aggressive defender and he makes smart plays. He’s going to be a good NHLer for awhile.”
And knowing some of those Erie guys beforehand helped influence Dermott’s decision to commit to the OHL, though naturally there were several other factors, too.
In the end, those OHL days turned out to be pretty good for the young defenseman. While Brown had to help wrest the organization up from the dirt in a rebuild that culminated in four straight 50-win seasons and eventually an OHL championship last year (the title coming after McDavid, Brown and Dermott had left, ironically), Dermott enjoyed multiple playoff runs. The Otters even dropped out of the Carnevale League because they were so good and so deep – but they might come back next summer.
Still, Dermott’s trek to the NHL didn’t go straight from Erie. Like the majority of NHLers, he developed in the AHL as well, spending the past season and a half with the Toronto Marlies. It’s widely accepted that going from junior to the AHL is harder than going from the AHL to the NHL and Dermott agrees with that sentiment.
“In the OHL there are still guys who aren’t fully committed,” he said. “They’re along for the ride; they know they’re not going further than that. Coming up to the AHL was a big jump. It’s a harder battle.”
Now that he’s up with the Maple Leafs, Dermott is turning heads. His game seems to be tailor-made for today’s NHL and with Toronto suffering a rash of injuries and illnesses to its back end, the ascent of him and, more recently, Justin Holl, has been a welcome tonic. The fact the Leafs are playing a faster, more devastating game since Dermott came up doesn’t hurt his future prospects, either. The Marlies prepared him for the NHL and now the Leafs are putting him in a position to succeed.
“We have a great group of guys that have made me comfortable, which helps a lot,” Dermott said. “Everyone here is at the right place at the right time, so it makes the game pretty easy for me. I just have to make sure I’m up to speed, making sure my passes are hard and crisp. It’s about following up the play quickly – not skating speed so much, but puck speed and how fast the game happens around you.”
When he scored his first NHL goal on Wednesday night against the Islanders, Dermott did it with his father in the building. It was an indelible memory that included a joyous celebration behind the net and a tear or two from Jimmy Dermott, who will be going on the team’s annual dad road trip. But it’s not the only great memory Travis has banked in the early days of his NHL career.
“After my first game against Vancouver I saw a picture of Henrik Sedin chasing me behind the net and it was kinda surreal,” he said. “Me trying to get the puck off him would have been kinda cool, but him trying to catch up to me was probably one of the coolest parts of getting my first handful of games out of the way.”
Based on Dermott’s play so far, Leafs Nation must be stoked about just how long that career will be. The journey just to get to this point has been pretty successful already.