Photo Credit: Christian Bonin/TSGPhoto.com
Let’s get one thing out of the way; the American Hockey League isn’t a safe space to be a goalie. There’s a league above you, a league below you, the ability for players to be brought in on tryouts, and as such, a real cut-throat sense of competition. Politics of prospect value can get in the way, injuries can get in the way, an odd bounce can send your career in a crazy direction.
The Toronto Marlies are no stranger to this. Last year, eight goaltenders strapped on their pads and faced pucks for them, and they had an emergency backup on a couple of occasions. Assumed Marlies, called up Solar Bears, sent down Leafs, deadline cap dumps, Zamboni drivers, and the ghost of Ray Emery all got to throw on jerseys and chest protectors. This year, the injury bug hasn’t been quite so bad, but there have been some oddities along the way.
Garret Sparks, for the first time in his pro career, was the opening day starter. He looked pretty solid too, stopping 27 of 29 in a 5-2 win over the Utica Comets. But a tough loss against Rochester a week later did him no favours, nor did a myriad of issues that followed. Sparks missed several weeks with an injury in Late October and early November, and while he managed to get a couple of decent games in after recovering, he was suspended in late November for violating the team’s social media policy.
Since coming back, Sparks has played just five games in the span of a month. To his credit, he’s put up at least a 0.900 save percentage in all but one of them, in which he only faced sixteen shots. His most recent performance was a 24 save shutout on Saturday. Sparks has put up an above 0.915 save percentage (“quality start”) in 5 of 9 appearances.
Antoine Bibeau was, for yet another year, the other goalie in the mix, but found himself in a come-from-behind position this time around. Sparks’ injury was his again, though, as he appeared in 11 of 13 games between October 22nd and November 22nd. He had some high points in that stretch, including three shutouts, and that was enough to earn him a look with the Leafs, where he has mostly been on the bench watching Frederik Andersen. To his credit, he’s looked good in both of his games, posting a 0.927 save percentage.
With the Marlies though, he could be doing a bit better. A 0.906 save percentage has him once again on the cusp of the league average; you’d like to see more out of a third-year pro. Bibeau has put up a quality start in 5 of 17 appearances.
#MarliesLive News: Jeff Glass has been released from his PTO.
— Toronto Marlies (@TorontoMarlies) January 9, 2017
One of Toronto’s options in veteran Jeff Glass saw his stint come to an end today. The 31-year-old, most famous for being on the uber-stacked 2005 World Junior Team Canada roster, spent years bouncing around the KHL before deciding to join the Marlies for training camp on a tryout deal. For a while, it looked like he wouldn’t ever actually draw into a game, but Sparks’ suspension give him an opportunity. Glass ran with it, stopping 22 of 23 shots in a win at the Air Canada Centre. His next appearance, in which he gave up 3 of 25 a few days later, wasn’t as nice, and as the next layer of the shuffle ensued, he was left to the side again.
It’s unknown where Glass’ next destination will be; for his sake, hopefully somewhere that will pay him well and play him frequently. Given his history of solid play in the KHL, there’s no reason to believe he couldn’t be at least a quality backup in the AHL.
I think Karri Ramo is going to need a couple of more games. pic.twitter.com/UeF4EhllXz
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) December 8, 2016
Karri Ramo was a name that’s been lurking around all sorts of Leafs gossip all season. Earlier in the year, he was brought in, not even on a tryout, but just to hang around and practice with the Leafs while he recovered from an ACL injury. He eventually signed a PTO with the Marlies in early December and was given a stretch of three appearances in five games to try to take control. While he stopped 33 of 36 in his debut, he gave up four goals in each of the appearances that followed, casting doubt on his ability to keep going.
At some point in that stretch, he re-injured himself. From the way Sheldon Keefe made it sound, I wouldn’t be holding my breath on an imminent return. “I’m not really sure of the status, to be honest,” said the Head Coach, “but he hasn’t been skating or anything”.
Scott Kosmachuk pulls the Moose back in, 4-3. This is an extremely poor effort by Jhonas Enroth all the way. pic.twitter.com/ABMl325KUE
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) January 5, 2017
Jhonas Enroth is the last of the gang to make his way into the rotating, appearing in the back third of this stretch-to-date and playing in three games. Enroth is down with the Marlies because, well, he was bad with the Leafs. There’s no sugarcoating a 0.872, no matter how bad you feel for the dude. While some suspect that his small stature has kept him out of favour with Mike Babcock and the coaching staff, a stint down here was also suspected to help him gain his confidence back.
The good news is, he seems to be trending upward. While he’s let in three goals in each of the games he’s played in, the shots on goal have gone up, and as such, his save percentage has trickled upward. It’ll be interesting to see if he continues to get more reps down the line, because while he’s far from a saviour there’s no reason he shouldn’t be salvageable. This is a goalie, after all, who was an above average NHL backup in four of his previous five seasons.
The only issue is that he might just need time the organization doesn’t have. Because, after all, both teams need to win games. The Leafs are fulfilling the scoffed-at expectation of being in the playoff race through the halfway point, but they risk gassing out Frederik Andersen by playing him to death. The Marlies are playing well but not getting results, and when sticks go cold, you need to be supported by good goaltending if you want to steal yourself some points.
That’s where the problem lies. Prior to Sparks’ suspension, he and Bibeau (mostly the latter) started in sixteen games combined. Together, they had a 0.910 save percentage, had quality starts in just seven of them, but managed a 9-5-2 record. Since then, five goaltenders have played the 18 games that followed. Together, they’ve achieved even quality starts (five); one of which came in the first game of the stretch, and another came this weekend. Three times in this run, they’ve received sub-solid efforts in three or four games in a row. The end result is a combined 0.906 save percentage and a 6-11-1 record.
Keefe was asked yesterday about whether he believed that the carousel, which hasn’t seen an individual goalie start more than 4 times in a 10-game stretch since November, impacts how the team can get ready for games and execute. “It doesn’t make it any more different for me to prepare,” Keefe said. “It makes it harder for the goalies to prepare. It doesn’t help their cause.”
“It’s the American Hockey League, you’re going to be faced with different situations and you’ve gotta deal with, our team’s gotta deal with it. We know the situation, it’s out of everybody’s control, so you just gotta play. You gotta play well in front of them, and that’s the bottom line. We’ve done that at times and not gotten the results that we’ve wanted, today was the type of effort that I think no matter who was in the net, we got what we deserved out of it.”
It’s a tricky situation to be in for everybody involved in. Nobody’s situation is normal here; Sparks has gone through a lot, self-inflicted or not, Bibeau keeps bouncing between teams, Glass had no guarantee of time, Ramo is recovering from an injury, and Enroth is trying to find his mind again. To task a group of players trying to get turn themselves around with the challenge of getting the rest of the team back on the right track with no promise of consistent play time is rough; that they’ve been able to stay more or less around league average as a group is impressive with everything considered.
The good news is, the situation should begin to smooth itself out now. Glass being gone and Ramo being out for the foreseeable future, this is a good opportunity decide which of Enroth, Bibeau and Sparks will spend regular minutes with the Leafs and which two will split the load with the Marlies. Getting all of them regularly involved in something the key here; a situation where, for example, Bibeau gets to keep learning from facing NHL shooters in practice and occasionally in games, while Sparks and Enroth get their momentum back in AHL action could be the blessing they all need for the later stretch of the season.