Today on The Leafs Nation’s Top Twenty Prospects list, we shift away from defencemen. In fact, let’s ditch skaters entirely. Because sometimes, the puck is going the other way and you need a guy to stop it. Today, let’s talk about Garret Sparks.
Sparks is the only goaltender to make it into our rankings. Antoine Bibeau and Christopher Gibson both made it into our honourable mentions, but neither garnered enough votes to crack into the top twenty. In last year’s rankings, Sparks finished 13th in the preseason, and 15th in the mid-term.
With that said, I think that speaks more to the sudden blooming of those ahead of him and the replenishing of the prospect pool, more so than it is him personally hitting a decline. If anything, there’s more reason to believe he has a shot of making a career out of this than a year ago.
When we did last year’s rankings, Sparks had come off of a very, very long conclusion to his OHL career, playing 65 regular season and playoff games with the Guelph Storm in 2012/13. Ahead of him was his first full professional season.
To say that he started off the season poorly would be an understatement. Rather than provide a safe option for the team when they felt Drew MacIntyre could use a night off, Sparks allowed at least three goals in each of his first three games. By mid November, Gibson had spent some quality time in Orlando, and not only was the team not confident in Sparks’ abilities, he wasn’t super confident in his own. It was time to swap the two prospects.
According to Sparks, it was the best thing to happen to him.
“It was critical. I went from not being able to handle a league, to being a difference maker in the games that I was in. My time in Orlando was the reason why I was so much better later in the season than I was to start. Every opportunity that I had down in Orlando, I took advantage of it, and the results were instantaneous.”
In his nine game stint with the Solar Bears, Sparks had a 4-5-0 record, but also had a fantastic 0.924 save percentage in that time. Just before the end of 2013, the two rookies switched positions once again, and he had a second chance to prove himself capable. This time, he took it.
“I think that my biggest moment [this year] was my win in Grand Rapids on New Years Eve. That was my first game after being called back up from Orlando, and there was a lot riding on it. Coming back, and finding my groove in the AHL after a lengthy stint in the ECHL definitely helped me, and it made me realize that all the time I put in down in Orlando was worth it. From there, I rode that game for the next month and a half, two months, and put together what I thought was solid performance after solid performance. That was the foundation I needed for the rest of my season.”
From then on, Sparks posted an 11-3-1 record with the Marlies to close out the year, putting together a 0.926 save percentage in that time. If that was his year-end save percentage, he would have finished tied for second amongst rookie goalies with 1000+ minutes played, and the highest of anybody born after 1991. Instead, his final number of 0.915 brings him to sixth amongst rookies, and third in his age rage. Not bad, when you consider that the kids ahead of him are Malcolm Subban and John Gibson.
With MacIntyre off to Carolina to compete for a spot with the Hurricanes organization, Sparks appears to be the early front runner for the Marlies’ starting job this year. The dynamic has now changed; rather than looking down to avoid the league below, he’s now looking up to the clouds, trying to reach the one above.
“Obviously, there are two goalies ahead of me on the Leafs. I have a responsibility with the Marlies to play my best hockey there, but at the same time, I want to be ready, just in case anything were to happen. I’ve seen wild things happen in hockey before, and to rule out a call up or an extended stay out there would be doing myself a disservice. I want to prepare myself for whatever this season throws at me, and obviously nobody dreams about playing the AHL. It’s all about the next level.”
Part of that preparation is mental. but a lot of it is physical as well. “I’ve been working out with the Leafs all summer, with Anthony Belza. I’ve been living in Toronto since mid-July. It’s been a really short summer, seeing as we made it so far last season. But hockey at this level is something that you only get one really good shot at. I’ve beared down and made the changes that I had to make, diet wise, in the gym. I’m just trying to prepare my body for what the toll of a sixty game AHL season would be for a goalie.”
For those who haven’t seen a lot of him on the ice, Sparks is a “stop” goaltender. He’s capable of making “saves”, but he combines a large body (6’3, 208lbs) with strong positioning to get in the way of pucks in a logical way, rather than thrilling you with acrobatics. As mentioned above, he seems to be the type of goaltender that needs regular ice time to stay in proper form.
It’s safe to expect him to at least double his AHL games played this year. In terms of performance? He’s been in that 0.915-0.917 gap in three leagues for the past two seasons, but if what we’ve seen in this calendar year is any indication, there may still be room for improvement yet.
In his own mind, he’s keeping expectations simple. “It’s a long season. I’m not going to go in and say ‘I expect to make it to the second round of the playoffs, to do this, to win that’. I don’t expect anything from the game. I just don’t. I want to be prepared for whatever is thrown at me, and for whatever opportunities that I’m given.”