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Photo Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Leafs went the familiar route in the backup goalie market, and that’s okay

Earlier this week, the Leafs ended their great quest for a backup goalie, and instead signed two. Both internal options and both who have served as the Leafs backup goalie for part of the past two seasons, the front office avoided jumping at another option and stuck with what they knew. Rumours were floated that Toronto may have shown interest in Mike Condon, and possibly others, but at the end of the day, we’ll probably never know.

While it’s clear that Curtis McElhinney will by all accounts get the #2 job to start next season, giving two years to Garret Sparks as well shows the organization has enough confidence in a guy who’s been one of the better AHL goalies over the past few seasons but despite one iconic opening game shutout, has yet to put it together in the NHL.

Unless McElhinney drastically falls off in training camp or Sparks jumps ahead of him on the depth chart, the Leafs goaltending will look the same to start next year as it did to end this season. Despite it not being the flashy acquisition that some may have hoped for, it’s probably the right move.

Let’s take a look at the Leafs’ goaltending depth of the past season and how it looks moving forward.

How were starts allocated in 2016-17?

  • 66 games were started by Andersen. He was pulled three times and left the game with an injury just twice. Once he was replaced by Jhonas Enroth, and four times he was replaced by Curtis McElhinney. He never was pulled more than 22 minutes into the game for performance reasons, so if Andersen makes it out of the first period, it’s almost a sure bet he’ll keep going. (There was also the game against Vancouver where he got kicked out for fighting Ryan Miller, but it was with under six minutes to play, so meh. Jhonas Enroth picked up the final few minutes there en route to a 6-3 W. It was the only game Enroth played in that the Leafs won.)
  • 10 games were started by McElhinney. He was never replaced for any reason in a game he started. McElhinney also started 5 games this season in Columbus, FWIW.
  • 4 games were started by Jhonas Enroth. He did not win any of his starts and was eventually traded to Anaheim for a 7th round pick.
  • 2 games were started by Antoine Bibeau. He played well, winning 3-2 in OT one night over Tampa and somehow losing 3-1 to Colorado the other. He’s no longer in the Leafs organization after they failed to send him a qualifying offer, as he looked overmatched in the AHL this season, posting just a .894 save percentage in 32 games.

To me, the most promising this here is that I completely forgot about Jhonas Enroth’s existence as a member of the Leafs from about January- right now. Every goalie is bound to have a few stinkers, but right out of the gate for whatever reason. Enroth reached a mark of .890 ONCE in his four starts and relief appearance, discounting the Vancouver game where he faced just three shots.

It’s only four starts, but when you make the playoffs by just one point, every start matters. Andersen hit .890 in 46/66 games, which comes in at just under 70 % of the time, while McElhinney hit that mark in 8/14 games, about 57% of the time. If they play at a similar level next season, you can see how those four games could be swinging in another direction. But anyway,  that’s a lot of numbers and you can play the “what-if” games all day long. What the Leafs look like in net next year is the far more important question, and what we’ll be answering next.

66 vs. 16

66 vs. 16 is not Mario Lemieux, or even Joshua-Ho Sang facing off against Mitch Marner. No, it’s obviously the amount of starts Andersen had compared to his backups.

Is it repeatable? Well, 35 goalies over the past two years have played at least 60 games, so about a little more than half of the starting goalies in the league if you figure that there are 30 #1Gs (now 31, of course).

From my count, 9 of McElhinney’s 10 starts came in the second half of a back-to-back, with the only other start coming when Andersen was injured: against Florida on March 28th. (He also did start the final game of the season when both of these things were true.)

The good thing is the Leafs will be more rested this year than 2016-17, which gives some hope that it’s definitely possible to get a good haul out of Frederik Andersen in 2017-18.

I figure the course of action would be:

  • Assuming there are no health concerns, slot Andersen in for around 60 starts, +/- 5 either way.
  • Use McElhinney for about 10 guaranteed starts in back to backs.
  • ??????

As a coach, you’d obviously love to have some ort of plan about how to allocate your goalies. But at the same time, 82 games is obviously a lot and you can’t just pencil in the starters from day one. Bring up Sparks for a few games to see what he can do and to lighten Andersen’s load? Slow things down a little down the stretch if you’re in a comfortable playoff spot? Give Sparks 5-10 starts and maybe some backup duty to see if he’s ready?

Curtis McElhinney

What if he’s good?

  • He’ll probably make between 15-20 starts, winning about half of them. That’s about it, really.

What if he’s bad?

  • He can be placed on waivers again. Because he has a decent enough if not spectacular NHL career, someone might claim him. If not, see the last point.
  • Traded. His value might not be very high, but there might be a middling team who’s willing to take him on.
  • Retire. McElhinney’s 2016-17 season was actually probably his best of his career, but they were definitely a bit of a surprise. If things go south, maybe he’ll just stop playing? Martin Biron did retire midseason after being lit up by Tomas Hertl four times, so maybe he’ll find his way on TSN sooner rather than later. He’ll be 35 by the end of next season, no shame in hanging them up.
  • Use Garret Sparks. This seems like the obvious option, which might come in combination with one of the other options as well.
  • I mean, technically you could play him on the Marlies.

Garret Sparks

Can goalies get bridge contracts? The show-me deal? I guess so, right? That’s what Sparks’ contract appears to be: a final two year opportunity to see if they’ll ever make him the Leafs’ full-time backup under regular circumstances. Or, if McElhinney plays his deal out, the chance to maybe be the backup goalie after that. Whatever the case, it’s likely he’ll see at least some NHL action over the course of the deal, but will likely start the year as the Marlies #1 in front of Kasimir Kaskisuo.

It’s important to note he’ll need to be waived to be sent down to the AHL, but because it’s a two year-deal where he makes $700k even if he’s in the minors in 2018-19, it’s unlikely too many people will want to claim him.

What if he’s good?

  • Stick in the AHL until needed, and call him up when necessary.

What if he’s bad?

  • Kept in the AHL and moved on from after the contract. As much as you’d like your AHL team to have good goaltending, if they don’t, there’s still 20 or so roster spots for other players to develop.
  • Traded. While it might be small, Sparks will still have some trade value over the course of the deal, and his contract is small enough that it could be tacked onto a larger move if the Leafs really need to get rid of him.

Who else was there?

We covered this topic in a post earlier today, but grabbing a backup goalie wasn’t exactly the easiest thing to do. A few starters joined new teams, but for backups, there ‘s not much else out there.

From Jeff Veillette’s post:

Almost every other backup stayed with their team, went to a former team (Johnson), or picked a market for family reasons (Miller). Unless you wanted to promise Anders Nilsson or Antti Niemi a shot at Frederik Andersen’s job, or fancied a high-price Jonathan Bernier reunion, giving Sparks and McElhinney cheap renewals and letting them sort out who backs up and who starts for the Marlies in September was the clear-as-day safest option.

Looking at the free agent market for goalies who some other goalies who were already signed you seem names like: Oskar Dansk, Max Legace, Darcy Kuemper, Edward Pasquale… you get the point. McElhinney and Sparks might not be the sexiest options, but the point is, they’re options, and flexible ones at that.

Maybe “they can get out of it if they’re bad” isn’t the most optimistic viewpoint, but really, what more do you need from a backup goaltender? We’ve seen firsthand how the “two guys competing for the starting job” approach can cause more headaches than solutions, and if the Leafs are making a playoff push and need to replace someone else, there’s more than a few trade combinations of non-roster players or draft picks that could net them what they need.

For a team that’s looking to contend like the Leafs appear to be, who your #2 goalie is should never be that big of a deal. Maybe they’ll make a midseason or deadline day move to improve marginally, but as things stand right now, there’s not much reason to think they will.

At the end of the day, the Leafs got an AAV of$1.525 million for not one, but two potential backup options. Both are a bit of a mixed bag, but there’s nothing wrong with that. They’ve got two years to figure it out, after all.

  • FlareKnight

    I’m fine with this and figured that’s what the Leafs would do anyways. They found someone they can count on as a backup. So why not bring him back? Goalies are unpredictable anyways. Getting someone they at least feel comfortable with makes sense. It also gives Sparks more time to prove himself and grow into the regular backup for the team.

    • Gary Empey

      There is the concern that Andersen sustains a major injury as can happen to any goalie. Are either of these guys capable of playing the 1# role for a long period of time?

      • Digs

        Andersen track record doesnt show much injury but i think mcelhinney can fill in nice. Lots of experience. Also with the extra goals that will becoming this year from the experienced rookies and marleau. Jeff Davis, kingston ontario. Go leafs

  • Digs

    Mcelhinney is a steady and budjet signing. He played well for leafs last year and has a good history. He will only get better being comfortable for a second year. Nice signing. Jeff Davis, kingston, ontario.