It’s really crazy to think just how drastically the perception of Garret Sparks has declined over the course of a calendar year.
June 14th 2018, and Sparks is hoisting a Calder Cup to cap off an extraordinary 2017-2018 campaign in which he was crowned as the league’s best goaltender and solidified himself as an NHL-calibre goalie. Sparks was bunched in with that group of players who were inevitably bound to graduate on from the Marlies – the Travis Dermott’s, the Justin Holl’s, the Andreas Johnsson’s, etc – and it seemed like a no-brainer that he was ready for the next stage.
At the time, it seemed like there was nowhere else but up for Sparks, a goaltender who paid his dues and battled through some sticky situations early in his career.
One year later.
June 14th 2019, and hockey insider Pierre Lebrun reports that the Leafs are shopping Sparks after the 25-year-old netminder struggled throughout the 2018-2019 season (.902 SV%, 3.15 GAA, 20 NHL GP) and, as a result, was essentially exiled from the group and stripped of his understudy duties at the tail-end of the regular season.
Everything in Leafs nation is thrusted under a microscope and, with that said, many may inadvertently underrate Sparks’ worth. Let’s not kid ourselves though, Sparks still has value. Enough so that the Leafs could get an asset back in return for him.
In hindsight, you really can’t blame Dubas for taking a gamble on Sparks last fall.
Sure, there was a solid case to be made that either Curtis McElhinney or Calvin Pickard – who were eventually scooped up on waivers – would have been safer options for the backup role. But Dubas wasn’t content with losing Sparks, who was a half-decade away from 30-years-old, for nothing. He had earned his stripes through the minors and it was worth it to give him a look. Ultimately, Sparks wasn’t able to provide what the Leafs needed, which was a backup who could help cut back Freddie Andersen’s 60-game workload. Things just didn’t work out.
But just because it didn’t materialize in Toronto doesn’t mean it can’t work out elsewhere.
The biggest question mark with Sparks, from here-on-out, is if he can produce on a consistent basis. Take a look at how his save percentage fluctuated throughout the 20 games of action he saw.
Now, what can we take away from this?
For starters, Sparks’ SV% was around or above league average for half the season. The other half, however? Well, it wasn’t great. But goaltender evaluation isn’t as simple as just looking into their numbers.
“When you are evaluating goaltenders, you have to keep in mind the totality of those circumstances,” one NHL executive told The Leafs Nation.
And the reality is, Toronto just may not be the place for someone like Garret Sparks. On the surface, that sounds like a crazy excuse, but hear me out.
Sparks’ passion is what defines him. And as much as that burning fire has helped him get to where he is today, it’s also hindered him all the same. Sparks is quite active on social media, particularly with Twitter, and when you’re playing in Toronto, it’s commonplace to see your name slandered over and over again. For some players, that can be difficult. And it’s even more challenging for a guy like Sparks, who wears his emotions on his sleeve.
In the fall of 2016, Sparks was suspended by the team after he posted a slew of vulgar messages in a private Facebook group comprised of goaltenders. Then, on March 17th of this past year, Sparks called out his Leafs teammates for a lack of emotion after a loss to the Senators.
In a hockey-crazed market like Toronto, incidents like those of Sparks’ past aren’t going to be swept under the rug. There’s no escape from the Leafs in Toronto. For some players, especially those like Sparks, that’s difficult.
Perhaps playing in a different market could help him regain his confidence on and off the ice.
With one-year and 750,000 remaining on his contract, there isn’t much of a financial risk tied in with Sparks. And for teams that are cap-strapped or looking to allocate fewer funds at the goaltender position, Sparks makes a lot of sense. His contract aligns aptly with what lower end backup goalies will make these days and if he can regain some consistency, he could provide some bang for his (minimal) buck. And hey, if he flops for whatever team acquires him, most General Managers would probably have no problem burying that kind of money in the minors, especially given Sparks’ AHL track record.
What’s he Worth?
The Leafs should be able to land an asset for Sparks, but it’s not going to be anything special.
“You’re not going to get anything better than a fifth for him,” said an NHL executive in a conversation with The Leafs Nation.
Back in December, the Leafs gave up a fifth-round pick for Michael Hutchinson, a decorated AHL goaltending in his own right who has far more NHL experience than Sparks. In that deal, Florida was acting from a point of leverage. Toronto’s goalie depth took a huge hit and with the organization wanting to preserve the Marlies’ season, they were desperate to bring in some experience. Thus leading to Toronto sacrificing a fifth-round pick.
If Florida was negotiating with anybody else, there’s reason to believe the asking price could have been lower.
As I reported yesterday, the Leafs were one of the teams that checked in on goaltender Connor Ingram, who the Tampa Bay Lightning ended up dealing to the Nashville Predators for a conditional seventh-round pick in 2021.
Heard #Leafsforever inquired on 22yr old G Connor Ingram before the #GoBolts dealt him to the #Preds for a 2021 7th. Ingram, who mysteriously finished the yaer in the ECHL just months after being named an AHL all-star, could've been a low-risk/ high-reward pickup for TOR. @TLNdc
— Jacob Stoller (@JLStoller) June 15, 2019
Ingram’s case is a bit different, given the weird off-ice incidents that lead to the AHL all-star being relegated to the ECHL for the final stretch of the season, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see a Sparks trade that involved a condition stapled to it. For example, a contingency could be set in place where, say, a sixth round pick becomes a seventh if Sparks does not suit up for X amount of games with the NHL club.
Now, things could get a little more creative and the Leafs could do a deal where they swap personnel. Like we saw in the Josh Leivo for Michael Carcone swap, the Leafs have no problem going after low-to-mid tier prospects that they like, as opposed to adding another draft pick.
Again, it won’t be anything special, but it’ll be something. Getting back some sort of tangible asset for Sparks, who the Leafs spent plenty of time developing, is better than just discarding of him for nothing via waivers.