Garret Sparks Returning to Marlies, Bernier Back to Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs have seven days to go before they next take the ice in a game.. and apparently, the club will be pretty busy moving players up and down in that time. 

The Leafs, according to TSN’s Jonas Siegel, will be bringing Jonathan “Nelson Mandela” Bernier back up from the AHL’s Toronto Marlies next week for the game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. 

James Reimer, in addition, is expected to be ready to play; that means that the Leafs will no longer be carrying a goaltending tandem made up of their two AHL prospects heading into their game on the 15th. 

Translation? Garret Sparks is headed back to the Toronto Marlies. 

The Good News

Up until he injured himself, James Reimer was having one of his best seasons to date; the 27 year old Morweena, Manitoba native posted a .935 raw save percentage over the first 16 games he played in the 2015-2016 season. 

Seeing an injury sustained early in the season is never good, and seeing it re-aggravated in an attempt to get the skater back in the lineup is even worse. Giving Reimer a couple of games off, though, and then bringing him back during an opportune seven-day hiatus in the team’s schedule, lowers the likelihood that this will be a recurring problem for the team throughout the year. Having Sparks to shoulder some starts while Reimer was out gave the team a player they had faith in to backstop the roster, while preventing Bernier from continuing his downward spiral or Reimer from trying to play through said injury. 

This is also good news because it means that Sparks is going to get exactly what he deserves – more starts back in the AHL, rather than a backup position to Reimer for the forseeable future. If he is, indeed, playing to a level where the NHL is his long-term future, Sparks deserves time making as many starts as possible. He has a .921 unadjusted save percentage during his tenure with the Leafs, but why not give him more time in the AHL? 

The Bad News

Jonathan Bernier has been stellar – like, two shutouts in two games stellar – since getting reassigned to the Toronto Marlies for a conditioning stint, but there’s only so much weight that can be placed on his performances in the AHL. 

If he still questions his saves at the NHL level upon return, it doesn’t matter how technically sound his play is from an empirical standpoint. A goaltender first and foremost must be able to trust his own reactions and his ability to correctly execute certain saves without thinking about them consciously first, and we haven’t seen that from Bernier since… well… 

It’s not that Jonathan Bernier is a bad goaltender. Jonathan Bernier has the ability to be quite good, he just isn’t playing that game – and if he continues to not play that game, the Leafs will be sitting ducks with his bad contract and worse confidence. 

This also sounds kind of nitpicky, but this is also bad news for Antoine Bibeau. 

If Sparks remained in the NHL for a bit, Bibeau would presumably get a number of starts at the AHL level – either due to Bernier being scratched or Reimer being injured. Instead, the 21 year old is almost certainly going to take a backseat to Sparks at the AHL level, whom the Leafs have no reason not to ride heavily with the Marlies. 

That’s not necessarily bad for the Leafs if Reimer and Sparks become a tandem for a few years, but it’s bad news in the sense that it’s going to limit ice exposure for a prospect many considered to have NHL potential. The Marlies could see a split crease with Sparks and Bibeau, but that limits ice time for Sparks; ultimately, someone is going to see less ice time than they deserve, and there’s no other way to shake it out. 

For now, though, let’s look at that Sparks shootout save from tonight just one… more… time.