March 27 2014 11:27PM
Your NHL starting goaltender goes down with an injury. Who do you think benefits the most? In the case of the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, it turned out to be the one hanging out in Florida.
It's a weird concept. It wasn't a win for Jonathan Bernier; he was hurt. It wasn't a win for James Reimer; he, reasons debatable, had a chance to redeem himself and failed. Drew MacIntyre got a call up, but once again fell short of making his first career NHL start. Christopher Gibson got a chance to strut his stuff as an AHL starting goalie, but after he got yanked on Saturday, Garret Sparks took the reigns and never looked back.
At practice on Thursday, Marlies head coach Steve Spott acknowledged that Gibson was the odd man out, with MacIntyre returning. It seems like, after just one start once sent to the ECHL, Sparks has kept himself in Toronto. Not bad for a goalie whose first trip down to Orlando came after posing an 0.848 save percentage in his first three professional games.
“Statistically, it was a huge turning point." said Sparks of that assignment, after his 43 save, 1st star performance on Tuesday. "In terms of what I learned down there? I had a really enjoyable time down there, I enjoyed everybody. The staff, facilities, whatever. I don’t know if it was a wake up call per se, that some guys get when they go down there. I missed it up here, and was determined to do the best I could with the opportunities I was given.”
When originally sent down in November, Spott pulled no punches about the rationalle. "We need Garret to play more minutes and stop more pucks." For a guy coming off of back to back 65 game (including playoffs) seasons in the OHL, this wasn't a surprising statement. “Having more starts definitely helped. Coming from what I've done in the past two years, that was a really slow start for me. I felt the games that I went into were challenging games, and though I thought I did a lot of good stuff, that I was also making mistakes still. It was good to go down there and work out the kinks, and come back up with a team that was confident in playing in front of me.”.
Being a goaltender in the ECHL is completely different from being a skater. There's a much higher chance of success, and the quality gap feels less so. After all, dekes and shots are dekes and shots at any professional level; the gaps between the good and great players tend to be skating ability and positional awareness, something that doesn't effect the goalie as much.
Anton Khudobin, Tim Thomas, Jonathan Quick, Ben Scrivens, Mike Smith, and Braden Holtby have all spent time in the ECHL, en route to having temporary or permanent starting roles in the NHL this season.
“I got a great experience down there, and it prepared me a lot for the challenges of the second half of the season here. I gained exactly what I needed to gain from going down there, and I honestly enjoyed every day I was down there. But, it also made me want to come back up here.”
The injury-based call up worked in his advantage. Despite a poor effort in his only game of his second stint with Orlando, he was the only option. Besides, you don't get swayed too much by single games when judging prospects. Sparks took advantage of the opportunity to press the proverbial reset button on the way back up. “Any time you get a call, especially since I haven’t gotten a chance to play that many games this year, you have to be ready to show why you’re here and deserve to be here”.
This weekend turned out to be his proving ground. While he let in two iffy goals and took a delay of game penalty after coming in for Gibson on Saturday, he put up back to back performances where he essentially carried his team to victory. Perhaps more impressive than his Tuesday game was the effort he made against Abbotsford, where he allowed just one goal while Toronto was outshot 32-12 between minutes 5 and 57. Unsurprisingly, he was happy with his recent performances.
“I mean, I felt really good in the game before, I felt good this game, I felt good for the past month and a half. I feel like I’ve gone to that next level so far this season. I’ve been doing a lot of work with Piero (Greco) this season, and it’s kind of transformed my game. It’s what I expect of myself now.”
It was the first time this year that he had been trusted with back to back starts, and it was enough to make him too good to send back. “That’s what a backup goalie is. It’s somebody who is dependable when you need them. I’ve been waiting all season for a chance like this, and I’m glad it’s here.”
Spott had nothing but good things to say about his development. "Like night and day. His body needed some work, he had to go into the gym, he had to watch his diet, and work on his physical conditioning. He's done all that. Piero Greco, our goaltending coach, deserves a lot of credit for that as well. He did some movement with his glove, changed it a little bit, I think Piero deserves a lot of credit for that."
That wasn't all from Spott, either "He's been really, really good. He came in here, had an opportunity to possibly become an overager with the Guelph Storm, but he's earned every opportunity he's had in professional hockey. Every time he's been reassigned to Orlando, he's conducted himself in a professional manner, and today you saw what he could do. It's great for the organization to have a player like that."
Safe to say, there are worse things to have in an NHL organization than a rapidly developing, 20 year old goaltender.
Photo courtesy of Christian Bonin / TSGPhoto.com