Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports
The last time that the Leafs started a Calder trophy eligible goaltender in goal, Jussi Rynnas let in seven goals in a blowout loss to Philadelphia at the end of the 2011/12 season. He never played a game for Toronto again after that. Garret Sparks will probably be looking for a different fate on Monday night, as he steps between the pipes to play his first career NHL game.
Garret Sparks will make his first NHL start tomorrow. Told after practice by Mike Babcock.
— Jonas Siegel (@jonasTSN1050) November 29, 2015
We have a long history on this site regarding saying nice things about Sparks’ performances, but to sum it up neatly, he’s overcome low expectations to perform well above the league average in the lower professional rankings. His 0.936 save percentage with the Orlando Solar Bears was the highest in the ECHL last year by a large margin (second place was 0.924), and through chunks of three season, he’s amassed a 0.924 through his AHL career, including a 0.938 this year (T-1st among goalies with 10+ starts).
The bulk of these strong performances have come over the past calendar year, however. Sparks turned his frustrations from his ECHL assignment into an opportunity to rebuild his game, doing everything from changing his diet, to cutting his hair, to revamping his technique to put less stress on his body. As he wrote on The Faceoff Circle in February:
I’ve learned a lot about my own body’s limits in the past few months. I’ve learned how to adapt my game to help avoid future injury, as well as maximize the use of my strengths. As a goalie, I find that my strengths are my size, flexibility, and ability to read plays as they unfold. Coupling those strengths with strong pushes from point A to point B rather than dramatic slides has greatly changed the way I play, and greatly increased my control. I paired this with a new core program to stabilize my body from the center out.
Since then, I’ve watched my style transform a day at a time. Plays where I used to spread out like Jonathan Quick, moving across the crease as I split from side to side, now see me come across the crease in one solid piece. Where I used to shoot a leg out to the side, I now trust my positioning, depth, and eyes to handle the shot, not extending myself beyond exactly where I need to be. Say what you will about blocking goalies like Corey Crawford, someone chastised for a lack of perceived ‘skill’, but I have never been more athletic, acrobatic, or in control of my body in fourteen years as a goalie.
Since then, he’s been a borderline 0.940 goaltender, making him one of the top performers outside of the NHL in any age bracket.
It’ll be interesting to see how Sparks takes advantage of this game. The Leafs aren’t exactly great, but they aren’t the Oilers, so he gets a bit of an easier first go at things than one would expect. Sparks will be the first under-23 goaltender to suit up for the Leafs since James Reimer made his debut in 2010/11. In his first start, Reimer stopped 32 of 33 shots against the Ottawa Senators, sparking a Miracle run which cemented his unlikely place as a full time. It would be funny if an injury to Reimer allowed for a prospect in a similar situation to repeat history.
Interestingly enough, the struggling Jonathan Bernier opted not to speak to the media today. That might mean a lot, or it might mean nothing; we’ll see as time progresses.