As confirmed yesterday and originally reported by me on Monday (TLN with those #exclusives, yo) the Toronto Marlies swapped around their two rookie goaltenders, sending Garret Sparks to the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL and calling up Christopher Gibson. I’ve had a few people ask me about this, so let’s go into detail into the significance that this seemingly minor move may have.
The question I’ve been asked most? A lot of people want to know if this means a fundamental shift in how the Leafs organization ranks their goaltenders. The answer is a resounding no. With an incredibly comfortable 1/2 duo in the NHL and Drew MacIntyre holding the fort more than steadily for the Marlies, the organization is in absolutely no rush to focus on any particular goaltending prospect in their system.
It’s not like we’re talking about two well-seasoned prospects who were brought in with high expectations here. Sparks had a coming out party of sorts in his last two years, playing well over 60 games in each season for Guelph, but we’re ultimately talking about a 20 year old that was drafted in the seventh round. The same goes for Gibson, who was signed as a 20 year old UFA because the Los Angeles Kings let his rights expire. No doubt the two are being taken seriously and that they’d like both of them to succeed, but it could be years before any serious commitment is made to one over the other.
Lets go back to his heavy workload in Guelph mentioned in the last paragraph. It seems that he’s the type of goalie that thrives under a constant workload, and he isn’t getting that with the Marlies this year, starting just three games so far. To make matters worse, as a rookie, he still needs to adapt to an entirely new level of hockey, which probably isn’t what you want to see coming in cold. In those three games, he has a 0.848 save percentage and 4.10 GAA, which bluntly are far from good numbers.
"It’s a development reason. We need Garret to play more minutes and stop more pucks" said coach Steve Spott, when I asked him the rationale behind the move last night. "It was the right time to swap them, and get Garret some starts. The East Coast Hockey League is such a good league right now, so he’s going to get meaningful starts and see some pucks."
I also talked to Garret, who was informed of the move on Friday (hence MacIntyre playing both weekend games), and he sees the move from the same angle. "I just want to play games, and I have a great opportunity to do that here."
For Christopher, he gets rewarded for a solid beginning to his season in Orlando. While outperformed by veteran 1-A John Curry, Gibson has put up respectable numbers given his experience, putting up a 0.901 save percentage and 2.70 GAA while facing about 25 shots per game. His benefit to coming up isn’t in performance, or trying to get himself in the NHL any time soon, but more about Leafs staff being able to have an active role in his growth, something Spott agrees with.
"That’s what it is, he comes up now to Toronto, he sees what it’s like in the regular season, he gets to work with (goaltending coach) Piero (Greco) pretty much on a daily basis, and gets to see what it’s like in the American Hockey League."
It’s pretty straight forward, really. Sparks gets to compete with Curry for minutes and get more starts than he would behind MacIntyre, and Gibson gets to get used to Toronto, work with the staff, and enjoy "the life" at a higher level while occasionally squeezing in a game or two. Eventually, the two will switch again and repeat the process.
"It’s nice that we have the depth in net that we can flip flop these two guys, and we’re going to do that throughout the year at some points."
Really, it’s the smartest option. A healthy balance between minutes and assistance is ideal for a 20 year old prospect, especially in a position with such a long-term development curve. With both of them in that age class, it makes it easy for the team to level things out.