On the basis of an emergency-recall, Garret Sparks has joined the Toronto Maple Leafs.
While Sparks’ promotion is in lieu of Frederik Andersen being injured, it also provides the Maple Leafs an opportunity to see what they have in the 24-year-old net minder, if they so please.
And frankly, if I were the Maple Leafs, I’d certainly give Sparks a game, or two.
You see, the Maple Leafs need to reduce Andersen’s workload.
The Danish goalie has been between the pipes for 80% of the team’s games this season, which on the surface is fine, but with Andersen being the team’s most valuable player, it’d probably be ideal to give him a couple nights off during the year. Especially to rest him up, and make sure he’s good for the playoffs.
For the Leafs, or in particular Mike Babcock, to ever consider reducing Andersen’s workload, the team would need to have a goalie behind them that’s too good to not give a couple of games, and that they’d feel comfortable in playing, to give Freddie some much-deserved rest.
And for that to even be considered, you’d have to think the team needs to have a better backup than Curtis McElhinney.
Before you freak out, don’t get me wrong, Curtis McElhinney has been a very solid backup for Toronto, when he’s been called upon. For as long he’s healthy, he’ll be on the Leafs roster this season.
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) March 15, 2018
But here’s the thing about McElhinney–he’s a 34-year-old career backup whose averaged 2.89 GAA to go along with a .907 SV% over the span of his career. He’s never played more than 32 games in an NHL season, and Babcock only starts him on the second night of a back-to-back, barring injury.
Beyond this season, McElhinney could certainly be challenged for his backup role, and one of the main competitors will be Sparks. Sparks, whose seen 12 Marlies graduate to the NHL before himself, has had his cup of tea in the NHL before.
Back in 2015-2016. when the cupboards were bare, and Mike Babcock was certainly pulling his hair at the thought of a long and tedious rebuild, Garret Sparks was summoned from the Marlies.He started his NHL career with a bang, becoming the first goalie in Maple Leafs history to record a shutout in his debut. Then, things went a bit south for the remainder of the stretch. He finished off his cup of tea in the NHL with a 6-9-1 record, coupled with lacklustre numbers (3.02 GAA, .893 SV%).
But since the last time he donned an NHL jersey, Garret Sparks has evolved quite a bit
Off the ice, he’s learned his fair share of lessons.
The first of which, was how to take care of his body, which Sparks explained to TSN’s Kristen Shilton. The second lesson he’s learned, is his use of social media. It’s no secret that Sparks was suspended three games by the Marlies last season for a violation of the team’s social media conduct. Sparks has substantially upped his game as a professional, and it’s caught the eye of Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe.
“[It’s great] how he approaches every day and just focuses on himself and his routine and what he needs to do to take care of his body to remain fit and remain healthy and maximize every day instead of having interruptions through the season.”
Now, in terms of his on-ice ability, the numbers, particularly this year, speak for themselves.
Garret Sparks 2017/2018
GAA: 1.78 (1st)
Sv%: .936% (2nd)
SO: 5 (2nd)
Alongside Calvin Pickard (who very well could be a suitable candidate for the team’s backup position), Sparks has helped backstop the Marlies to what will likely finish off as a first-place campaign in the AHL. He’s had success with the Marlies, for quite some time, and on Monday he broke the franchises record for all-time wins, which, to sparks, insinuates a harsh reality.
“It means I’ve been here a long time,” said Sparks when asked about his milestone. “Obviously it’s been five years in the making. A lot of staff members and teammates have come through and been a part of it, obviously wins are a team stat. You don’t get any of them without the guys in front of you.”
And plenty of the guys in front of Sparks, have been rewarded for their strong play with the Marlies. The most recent case was Andreas Johnsson, who was recalled by the team on Tuesday as a reward. Babcock even projected Johnsson as a full-time Leaf for next season, unless the team goes out and gets someone better. Unless there’s an injury, it’s difficult to bring up a goalie for a trail-run, but with the window of opportunity currently open, Sparks should be given another chance
There’s only one way to find out if Sparks can be a legitimate 20-25 game backup for the Leafs and that’s to give him a shot. The Leafs are fortunate that they have the type of point cushion that they have, and that for these remainder times, they’ll likely stay put second place in the Atlantic. So to approach the rest of the games, is to approach for the playoffs.
Priority number one for playoff preparation should be to ensure that Andersen is ready to go, and rested. But secondly, with the team having having a nine point cushion on their 3rd place spot in the Atlantic, there’s room to try some things out, and for example, see what Sparks can do at the NHL level, this time around, with a team that’s not in the basement of the NHL standings, but rather, a contender.