The Leafs had a great backup goalie situation in 2017-18. They had a surprisingly successful Curtis McElhinney, a recently acquired Calvin Pickard, who’d shown success at the NHL level, and Garret Sparks, who was absolutely on a tear in the AHL.
Now, they’ve managed to keep just one of three, with Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard being claimed on waivers.
Whatever the Leafs decided to do, barring a trade or keeping three goalies up, the writing was always on the wall that the Leafs could be losing a couple of their goalies. They’re left playing a goalie who has a fantastic AHL resume, but looked completely overmatched in his last NHL appearance.
And you KNOW the takes have already come out. Kyle doesn’t know what he’s doing. The Leafs can’t and they won’t. Horrid asset management, etc.
Garret Sparks could be great. Could be terrible. Everyone’s really just guessing how he’ll do in this go around.
Of course, this reminds me of another backup… former Blue Jay Josh Thole.
My goodness, was he abysmal. In four years in Toronto, he put up an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage, a catch-all statistic to determine a batter’s value) of .522, which would rank him 63/68 catchers if he were playing in the 2018 season. As you can see, it’s not hard to tell why he doesn’t have an MLB job anymore.
Thole was the source of constant anger and ire from the Jays fanbase.
Do you know how many playoff appearances Thole made in 2015 and 2016, on a team that made the American League Championship Series twice?
A grand total of zero.
Offering his take on Thole and backup catchers in general is Andrew Stoeten, former Blue Jays Nation Managing Editor and Jays writer for The Athletic:
Fans stress out about backup catchers generally because they don’t appreciate how bad they all are, or how difficult and rare it is to find genuinely elite talent behind the plate. I can’t blame ordinary fans for not looking too closely at league-wide backup catcher trends, so I guess I get it when they narrow their focus on their own team’s backup and insist he’s not pulling his weight, but that’s everybody. It was especially bad when the Jays had Josh Thole a couple years back, because a lot of his value came from a skill (catching R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball) that wasn’t quantifiable.
There may not be a great parallel to that in hockey, but the bottom line is that if you’re a team, it’s really just a matter of picking your poison, because they’re all flawed in some pretty significant ways. If they weren’t they’d be starting.
So what’s the point of this? Garret Sparks could be Josh Thole, as he showed in his NHL stint. He could be this year’s Luke Maile, who led all backup catchers in both OPS and WAR, (wins above replacement), which was more like his fantastic AHL year.
But if the Leafs really need to hinge the success on their season based on their backup goalie, they’ve probably got bigger problems. Garret Sparks shouldn’t (and probably won’t be) playing come playoff time, and if he’s such a liability that he’s sewering the Leafs’ season, well, the Leafs’ management group has some work to do.