Travis Dermott brings positivity — and play — back to Maple Leafs lineup

Travis Dermott has never had to put on a smile.

A rare breed of relentlessly happy, Dermott remained unwavering so throughout the most difficult challenge he’s faced to this point in his hockey career.

It’s been more than six months between games for the Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman — and two more since he’s truly been healthy — since suffering a shoulder injury last February that would eventually need to be surgically repaired. But as he finally makes his return to the Maple Leafs lineup Tuesday night versus the Washington Capitals, that long slog of a rehabilitation process — one that challenged him immensely — will be officially behind him.

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“I’m just excited to get back into the groove of things with the boys,” Dermott said through literal sighs of relief after his morning workout. “Let’s see what we can make of the season here.”

Elated and rigid with his positivity, Dermott’s mood comes as a direct contrast to the general feeling around the Maple Leafs, as well as a fanbase that views him as part of the solution to a defense core that has underperformed through the first four weeks of the season.

There will be an appetite to see Dermott quickly take on an elevated role. But for now as merely a clear upgrade on the other depth options, the only expectation should be that he helps raise the performance of the unit from the bottom up.

If that.

“Let’s keep everything in perspective here,” Babcock explained Tuesday morning. “Dermott hasn’t played since, when? He missed all of training camp. He was injured the second half of last year and came back in the playoffs and wasn’t healthy.

“This is a new start for Dermott, and we’ve talked to him about that. Let’s just play simple. Let’s keep it out of our net. Then we’ll just build our game as time goes on.”

Taking his first steps with him and helping to avoid a crash landing will be a familiar face in Justin Holl, who Dermott developed a rapport with previously through their time together in the minor leagues.

In many ways, Dermott’s recovery actually presented Holl with the opportunity that he needed in order to prove to himself and the Babcock-led coaching staff that he can have a positive impact at the NHL level.

A healthy scratch for most of last season, Holl demonstrated in Dermott’s absence that he was the best option to skate alongside highly-touted prospect Rasmus Sandin. And through his string of steady performances since the highly-touted prospect returned to the Toronto Marlies, he’s remained the most reliable choice to anchor the Leafs’ third pair.

From either the press box or the couch, Dermott has seen his old playing partner finally achieve the level of comfort he was previously without.

“I know what he can bring to the table when he’s on,” Dermott said. “It’s tough. You think the AHL is so close to the NHL, but figuring it out up here, being comfortable and (maintaining) the confidence you can grow down (in the minors) — you don’t always bring it up here as easy as that.

“He’s been really figuring it out, getting that confidence under his belt. Once the confidence comes, the skill can really show.”

As much as it was a challenge for Dermott to survive the gruelling process of returning from major shoulder surgery, in his eyes it was Holl that overcame a much more uncertain future.

He’s proud of his once-again defence partner for that.

“I’m sure it wasn’t fun,” Dermott said of Holl’s reserved spot in the press box last year. “He stuck it out without any complaints that I heard. He was a great teammate throughout. The fact that he’s doing well now makes everyone that much more happy for him. He wasn’t the sulky guy when he wasn’t playing, he was right there behind everyone.”

Members of the most maligned subgrouping with the Maple Leafs, Dermott and Holl will share in the pressure on a defense that has played a significant role in allowing goals at a rate near the top of the NHL.

Unlike the four preferred options ahead of them, though, both Dermott and Holl have reason to play freely.

Certainly for Dermott, that feeling won’t soon wear off.

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