Building off a breakthrough: Travis Dermott

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Toronto Maple Leafs.

If you were to look for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ biggest weakness you would probably start with their defense.

It is not a bad group, but it faced its share of criticism during the 2017-18 season while the team was near the bottom of the league in terms of its ability to prevent shots and chances. Some of that was due to being a young, aggressive team that plays a fast-pace, up-tempo game. Some of it was due to the fact that, as a unit, it is a flawed group.

But for whatever flaws it has, it’s not a group that is without talent and potential.

Morgan Rielly is a former top-five pick and is coming off of a breakout year offensively with 52 points. Jake Gardiner had a miserable Game 7 in the playoffs, but that should not overshadow the fact that he is is a really good player and has been for some time.

[Maple Leafs Day: 2017-18 Review | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

One of the more intriguing players out of the group is Travis Dermott, a 22-year-old defender that got his first taste of NHL action a year ago and made an immediate impact for the Maple Leafs.

A second-round pick by the Maple Leafs in 2015, Dermott received the call-up to the big club in January and became a regular in the lineup, appearing in 37 regular season games down the stretch, recording 13 points, and finishing with a 55 percent shot-attempt share that was tops among all defenders on the team and second only to James van Riemsdyk.

Given his age and lack of experience the Maple Leafs obviously didn’t throw him into the deep end and instead sheltered him a bit, but he still handled his role and the minutes he received as well as could have been expected. Among rookie defenders that appeared in at least 500 minutes last season, Dermott finished third in shot attempt differential, second in goal differential, and first in scoring chance differential (all numbers via Natural Stat Trick).

If nothing else it was an outstanding debut that should get him some increased responsibility and a bigger role in 2018-19.

The Maple Leafs are loaded with young impact talent at forward, a group that gets the bulk of the attention.

In Dermott they have a promising young defender that could end up becoming a core piece of their blue line.

Related: Maple Leafs should be NHL’s best offensive team

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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