Marlies Make First In-Season Demotions

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Following an opening weekend where the team split a pair of games against the Utica Comets, the Toronto Marlies have shortened their roster by six players, sending down Ryan Rupert, Brad Ross, Tyler Biggs, Eric Knodel, Blake Kessel, and Garret Sparks to the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL.

A bloody Bigg deal

I think the first name that will jump out to everybody is Tyler Biggs. I hate to throw a twenty one year old under the bus in just about any situation, but in terms of his status as a notable prospect, this might be the nail in the coffin. The assignment will make Biggs the only first round draft pick from 2011 to play in the ECHL, and one of just two skaters in the top sixty two picks to end up in that third-tier.

His time with the Marlies has been underwhelming at its peak, and at times, frustrating. In 62 regular season and playoff games, Biggs has just eight goals and two assists. The team has played him everywhere from line one to line four, in offensive and defensive roles, at centre and on the wing, but nothing has worked out for him. The team was outscored while he was on the ice throughout last year (46.9 GF%).

One has to wonder what is next for him; his skating needs to improve significantly if he has a shot at the NHL, his production numbers need to see a steep increase with the Solar Bears. If not, he may not find his way back. 

Clog in the Pipeline

Gord Dineen mentioned at the end of last night’s game that the team will be evaluating their options in net over the next few days. Typically, this is code for “we’ve made our choice and we can’t tell you yet”, which was the case last night. The team chose to send down Garret Sparks, who, on a performance basis, is the most surprising assignment of the bunch.

Last season, Sparks played 21 games. In this time, he went 11-6-1 and posted a 0.915 save percentage. These are pretty good numbers, especially when you consider that he started this season 0-3-0 with an 0.848 after facing 79 pucks. After returning from Orlando, Sparks consistently won or closed out games, and put up a 0.926 for the remainder of the season. These are very promising numbers for a prospect who started the season at 20 years old.

When I talked to Sparks in late August for our Top 20 Prospects segment, he seemed to be in noticeably better shape. He had been training all summer, in an effort to get his body prepared for a potential 60 game season with the chance of an NHL call up in the event of an injury.

But then Antoine Bibeau happened. The 2013 sixth round pick, who had gotten the attention of many during his QMJHL playoff and Memorial cup runs last season, stole the show in training camp, putting up big performances in scrimmages, the Rookie Tournament, and in the preseason. Sparks played well in his one appearance in the Rookie tournament, but suffered a groin injury.

It appears the Marlies have decided to ride Bibeau’s good form, at least for now. He started the season opener and looked stellar despite the 2-1 loss. This left Sparks and Christopher Gibson as the potential ECHL-bound goaltender, and despite having an underwhelming training camp, Gibson got the nod to stay. With that said, starting in the ECHL provides more ice time than being the backup in the AHL, so it’s possible that being the #2 in the immediate makes you the #3 in the long term.

Regardless, it’s still a very unique situation for Sparks. I did some research last night into goalies that put up a 0.915 single season save percentage in the AHL (with at least 26 GP; more than Sparks, but the easiest to search) between 2005/06 and 2012/13, to see what they did the following year. 

Out of 123 players (some of them repetitive; former Marlies/Leafs goalie Drew MacIntyre did it in five consecutive years!), ten of them went to Europe the next year, one retired, ninety three of them spent some time in the AHL again the next season, and sixty five of them got an NHL look.

The ECHL? Just three guys. You had Nathan Lawson, who started his following year with Utah and was called up within three games. The same thing happened with Matt Zaba, who was called up within nine days of puck drop. But neither of these guys were seen as real prospects by their organizations at this point, both being in their mid twenties.

The closest example with age considered is Magnus Hellberg, who played 7 ECHL games last year after putting up a 0.924 in the AHL in 2012/13. But even in his case, he was sent down for a post-injury conditioning stint.

I think it’s safe to say that the Marlies are stuck in a very unique situation here, where they legitimately have too many quality young goaltenders. There is absolutely zero statistical reason for Garret Sparks to be playing anywhere lower than the AHL at this point, but since the organization believes they may have something even better in Bibeau, he’s stuck paying the price of depth.

The Others

None of the other moves have as much intrigue to them. Brad Ross has been quite unproductive at the AHL level, despite his best efforts. Eric Knodel and Ryan Rupert have played a combined eleven professional games (all Knodel’s), and could use experience that they won’t get tucked under the depth chart. Lastly, as long as legitimate prospects are healthy and don’t look out of place, it’s hard to give somebody on an AHL/ECHL deal a spot in the lineup, so Blake Kessel will head back to the team he played for last season, at least for now.

Photo courtesy of Christian Bonin / TSGPhoto.com