Photo Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The Garret Sparks Conundrum

A couple thoughts.

  • Garret Sparks let in six goals last night.
  • The Leafs did not lose because of Garret Sparks, but he pretty much killed their chances of winning.
  • The Leafs got 35/36 shots to the net, and converted on one/two of them, depending on how you feel about offside reviews.

But this is not an article about last game, even if it is influenced by it. Garret Sparks had a bad showing in a game the Leafs could’ve used a better one, and if there weren’t five goals against by the 41 minute mark or so perhaps the Leafs would’ve had a little more fight in them to muster up a comeback.

This is not some grand analysis that should be seen as expertise. For that, you’ll have to find someone who actually knows what they’re talking about.

I’m not going to embed a video and break it down frame by frame.

There are several great resources for that.  But for this blog post, we’re going to look at numbers, and numbers only. I don’t think any of the conclusions here are too drastic. They just are what they are: the Garret Sparks conundrum.

The year to date

So some thoughts on the season for Sparks so far:

  • In thirteen chances this year, he’s had six “quality starts”, by the hockey-reference definition. So seven not quality. In terms of quality starts this season, he ranks 45/68 of goalies with at least ten starts.
  • In terms of raw save percentage? 48/68, with a .902 mark currently.

By those two metrics we can conclude that Sparks has been below average at his job, but not the worst. Just, you know, just inside the lower third tier of goalies. Unfortunately for Sparks, it’s not like we can really give him the benefit of the doubt. In his only other NHL season in 2015-16 where the Leafs had begun to sell the farm and tank like no tomorrow, Sparks put up an ugly .893 save percentage.

Here are this season’s starts, if you’re curious, sorted by how many goals he’s allowed in each.

He’s allowed five or more goals four times, and at least four goals six times. If you’re forcing your team to score five to win, you’re not doing a great job, and that’s happened nearly half the games Sparks has started.

The amount of times we’ve seen five goals or more against Frederik Andersen? Done it once, in 46 starts. In Boston, December 8th.

Now maybe this isn’t a surprise. We’re far removed from the days of Bernier/Reimer where the question of who should be starting was a battle literally every goddamn game. Your starter should be better than your backup.

You shouldn’t really use total goals against to ever judge a goalie, because not all starts are created equal and hockey is a team sport and all that other hoopla.

But man, have there been some stinkers from Sparks, and as we can tell, they’ve been more noticeable than any bad games from Andersen. And regardless of how the rest of the team played, and regardless of whether you think it’s possible to play well in a game you lost by five (again, they did get off 35 shots), last night was, once again, not a great game from ol’ Gare bear.

You could look at his AHL resume and be impressed. But you shouldn’t really give it any more than a passing glance at this point, considering, you know, it’s the AHL and his job is no longer to play in the AHL.

The “low-danger” problem

Where you really start to notice trends is in the types of goals Sparks has been letting up. You know that shot from the point? No, the other one.

We’ll pop over to Natural Stat Trick, where we’ll dig into their goalie advanced stats. We’ll keep it to 5v5, because it’s easier to evaluate and you hate to really give any goalie a knock against a small sample size of shorthanded play.

(There will be a few stats mentioned that a definition of which can be found here. Essentially, the ice is “binned” into three categories, and theoretically, it’s easier to stop a low danger chance.)

Average 5v5 goal distance for Sparks? 27.84 feet, which is the 6th worst (or 64th) in the league amongst the 69 goalies which have played at least 500 minutes, so essentially the same group as we were looking at before. It feels like he lets in longer shots than almost anyone, because, well, he does. His low danger save percentage? .945, which is… 67th out of 69. He’s actually tied with Keith Kinkaid, while only Jonathan Bernier has been worse.

But you go to high danger save percentage?  Obviously the percentage is lower because the players are shooting from closer to the net, but his .842 ranks 28th best in the league. You know who else has a .842? Carter Hart, goalie hero to end all goalie heroes.  And you move into the middle of the OZ, the medium danger range? .923, 18th in the league. Sparks is fine when it comes to playing shots from up close and a little further back. That is, at least statistically, not the issue right now. He’ll let up goals like any goalie, but if all he faced were close shots? Well, he’d probably be just about fine.

But for whatever reason, those low danger shots against? He’s let in eight of them. Andersen, in his 46 starts? He’s let in seven. They’re more frequent for Sparks in about one third of the playing time. So when it feels like it happens far too much, well, it does. It happens about four times more often for Sparks than for Andersen, and that right there is essentially the majority of the difference between why one is a star goaltender and one is fighting for his position in the NHL.

Does the team play differently in front of Sparks than Andersen?

Yes and no.

As you can see, they control play a little better, and score a little worse. Sparks typically faces less shots at even strength.

But a GF/60 of 2.83 is still higher than the average number of all but eight teams in the league. So it’s not like the Leafs’ offence has been completely dried up when he’s in net.

Other options

If you’re this deep into a post about a backup goalie, you likely know what happened last summer. The Leafs had to get rid of two of Sparks, Calvin Pickard, and Curtis McElhinney, who were all under NHL contracts.

Technically, they could’ve signed another goalie too. But they chose Sparks, and the other two were claimed on waivers.

One thing we can be clear about: Calvin Pickard is definitely NOT it. He’s got an .875 save percentage this year. We don’t need to go any further.

But the “wild and crazy, was bad for much of his career and now he’s very good despite giving you the scaries every time he’s on the ice” Curtis McElhinney? Maybe. His all situations .923 save percentage is a noticeable improvement on Sparks’ .902 . From an asset management perspective, it made sense to keep the younger goalie and give him a shot.

From a “damn the Leafs could use a better backup this season and figure out their backup next year in the future” perspective? Well, I think most people would be preferring that McElhinney option right now. We don’t know what next year is looking like, and maybe in hindsight Dubas made the wrong call. Is Sparks the answer next year?

Can he sort out his low danger issue? Lots of questions that only time will tell.

Some more goalie hullabaloo

Here are Sparks’ splits:

At home he’s been fine. On the road he’s been bad. In October he was bad, in December he was bad, in February he was bad. In November and January he looked great! He’s been awful against the Atlantic (and the East as a whole), but he turns into a stud against the Western Conference (except that awful game in Chicago where the Leafs pulled out a 7-6 OT win.) None of those mean anything at all, probably. It’s fourteen damn games, but I thought you might enjoy them.

I wrote in the summer about backup goalies, which you can (if you must) read below.

What can Josh Thole teach the Leafs about their backup goalie situation?

I’d like to draw your attention to one quote (yes, I’m that asshole quoting himself.)

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.

So far, the Leafs’ haven’t hinged their success on their backup goalie. Sure, flip two of Sparks’ losses into wins and they’re sitting second in the Atlantic Division instead of third. But they’re still eight points clear of a playoff spot, and like, they’re probably playing Boston at this point no matter what. At the end of the day, if you’re looking for something to be frustrated at, be frustrated Sparks might be costing this team home ice in the playoffs. Other than that, it’s hard to say he’s really had much of an impact on the season either way as a whole.

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