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Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

What Garret Sparks can do to improve his shot at a long NHL career

It’s no secret that Garret Sparks has struggled in his first year as a full time NHLer.

He’s the winner of only 2 in his last 9 starts to close out the season, sporting an .888 sv% and 3.49 GAA over that stretch.

We’re all well aware of GAA’s shortcomings and the danger of small sample sizes, but there are some obvious holes in Sparks’ abilities.

I wanted to take a deeper look into whether or not there’s still a chance for him to live up to what he showed in the AHL the last couple seasons. I combed through each of his starts this year, searching for some troubling sequences and try to point out what I see he’s doing wrong. Here’s what I found.

(Editor’s note: Brayden has over fifteen years experience playing and coaching goalie, peaking at the junior level. He’s #playedthegame.)

Anatomy of a save

One of the first things you need to master when you’re growing up as a goalie is when to get to the top of your crease and when to retreat. I admittedly didn’t watch a ton of Sparks’ junior or AHL career but his ability to do this at the NHL level is grossly lacking.

You can see it in this sequence. It’s easy to look at Rielly fumbling and say “well he has to get it out”. You’d be right, but not every mistake should end up in your net either. As Cizikas goes to retrieve the puck, he glances over his shoulder for a pass. Obviously, this isn’t a tell every time, but here he isn’t much of a threat to shoot as he’s along the boards and Rielly is right on him ready to block a shot attempt. What I’d like to see from Sparks here is to see him at the top corner of his crease while picking up the same passing option that Cizikas does.

Look as Clutterbuck pivots his foot before even receiving the centring pass, demonstrating his intention to cut to his backhand. Obviously, this is a lot harder to pick up in real time, but if he had decided to shoot here Sparks his way too deep in his net to give himself a legitimate shot at stopping it. There are just too many holes when your butt is still in the net and the guy has time to line it up in the slot.

 

This is all fine as Sparks gets into decent position when #15 does cut back, but I’d like to see him a bit further out here as there’s no real threat to try and jam it short side, while there is one for a drop pass to Martin which would send Sparks scrambling to once again get to the top of his crease. Instead, we see a shot where Sparks is down before the release. This is mostly alright as he has the short side sealed but ideally, there’s more patience on his feet as backhanders along the ice are rarely much to worry about. Admittedly it’s really hard to tell where a backhand is going to go but as a general rule, we should see goalies using the butterfly as a save selection rather than something they default to and it’s really hard to make a save selection before the puck is released.

Here’s the moment where Sparks has actually made the save and if we compare it to the previous still, we can see his legs have drifted further out of the net, which can be attributed to the likely realization that he should be further out. The unwanted side effect of realizing this while he’s already in the butterfly though is he starts to slide out of the net frame which is uhh, bad. Ideally, Sparks pushes into his right post to seal it off which is a lot easier to do if he’s pushing from north to south in his crease rather than east to west.

 

We can see Martin, the lefty, now has a couple of options. Try to bank it off Sparks’ left (!!!) foot and in, or pass across to Clutterbuck who looks to have an easy tap-in.

Luckily Martin takes a second to corral it, but at this point, both of Sparks’ skates are almost below the goal line which turns a 6-foot push across the net into about an 8 or 9 foot one. Once the pass is completed Sparks has to stretch across because he isn’t aware of who/where the shooting threat is. Luckily it’s a righty below the goal line who’s moving in the wrong direction to be able to pull it to the backhand quickly for a shot attempt. Instead, Clutterbuck takes it behind the net and does a nice job protecting the puck before throwing a pass out to the (uncovered) Cizikas in the slot.

 

Sparks swings and misses on the centring attempt.

This happens because he either doesn’t have time or doesn’t think to get his stick in the actual passing lane.

This leads to Cizikas on his forehand, in the slot with a goalie severely out of position and on the goal line. If not for Nylander getting a stick on this, it’s almost a sure goal started by some over and underplaying followed by some questionable decisions from Sparks.

I know this seems almost hypercritical of what was an eventual save, but it highlights a few of the issues that he isn’t always lucky enough to be bailed out on.

A lack of self-belief?

Another instance in which poor plays snowballed was last Saturday’s game in Ottawa. In only his second non-back-to-back start of the year, Sparks looked timid throughout the night. You always hear about how important the mental side of goaltending is, and it’s obvious Sparks has lost almost all confidence.

On the dump in, he fails to even leave his crease despite the puck looking very retrievable. We’ll give him a pass as not every goalie is confident in their puck handling ability but if that’s the case he needs to make it an area of focus this offseason. It hops over his stick and he gets back to his post. The Senators recover it and throw it on net almost immediately. Sparks is guilty of deferring to the RVH (the leg with the skate on the near side post on the ground in a half butterfly while the other leg is up) which greatly limits one’s ability to track pucks in their feet.

This happens here as the shot hits Sparks in the chest but he’s unable to corral it while the defenceman fails to clear it. The puck moves across to the other post and once again we find Garret in the RVH without his stick in the passing lane. The centring pass gets through, the puck is in the slot about to be shot and Sparks is in the butterfly, on the goal line. Uh oh. Again Sparks realizes this too late and is left flailing, kicking his legs out to try and get big down low at the last second, exposing his 5-hole and leading to a relatively easy goal against.

Trouble with off-the-puck play

One thing Sparks really needs to improve on if he wants to make a career out of this goalie thing is his scans when the puck is in “dead areas” or pockets of the ice where there isn’t much of a scoring chance developing suddenly. Throughout the game, he often gets caught puck watching and is completely unaware of what might occur next. This puts him at a tremendous disadvantage but is often missed by the casual fan because of the seemingly impossible save he would have had to make in order to stop the puck.

This play obviously develops rather quickly but what needs to happen as soon as Matthews turns it over and Lindberg picks it up is the goalie has to take a quick peek around to pick up who’s joining the rush as well as what hand they shoot with. It’s impossible to tell in any of the angles shown on the broadcast if this actually happens or not but I know when I do it, I’m keeping those threats in my periphery to see what they’re looking to do.

Duclair winds up for a one-timer before the pass across is even made. Anyone who has ever taken a one-timer while skating forward will tell you how incredibly difficult they are to aim, so this is definitely an instance where Sparks should be sliding across as soon as he sees the pass, sealing the ice and getting as big as possible because that thing is coming in heavy but wildly inaccurate.

This is a basic 2 on 2 where we’d ideally see Dermott step up to take away the shot but being caught flat-footed off the turnover, he isn’t given that opportunity but that doesn’t mean it’s an unstoppable puck.

Difficulty battling through screens

This skill doesn’t get credited enough to those who are good at it and doesn’t get harped on enough for those who are bad at it. It’s not just about going Hextall and two-handing everyone who’s within a stick length of your crease (although I’m not opposed to it).

It’s about deciding how to track the puck and any subsequent threat. Sparks really struggles with his selections here.

I know this is a short clip but bear with me. If you recall, this was an empty net situation for the Blackhawks. The Leafs have done a great job collapsing and forcing the lefty Kane to the outside and into a bad angle. Sparks undoes all this work by failing to recognize how virtually impossible it would be for Kane to bury it over his right shoulder and chooses to try to pick up the scoring threat over Anisimov’s right hip. Kane notices this, because he’s a good NHL player, and fires a shot before Sparks is able to fix this quick but costly mistake.


What’s next?

Despite the fact I just spent all that time ripping on him and pointing out his flaws, which there are a lot of, I still think Sparks has the physical and mental capability to turn it around.

25 years old is too soon to give up on a goaltender. He has a year of experience at this level under his belt and a summer to go through the video and work intimately with some of the best goalie coaches in the world who are no doubt more capable of articulating some of these shortcomings more concisely and gently while providing drills to improve on them.

He has proven himself too good for the AHL, so this is the next step.

Goaltending is so much like poker in that if you consistently make the right decisions, you will come out ahead of the field. Sparks needs to sharpen those split-second decision-making skills s the pace of the league around him picks up if he wants to be a part of it for much longer.

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