Garret Sparks to start for the Leafs on Monday

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.

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.

  • Benjamin

    I’m happy for Sparks, he deserves & has earned this opportunity, he’s worked extremely hard the past 2 yrs & it’s showing in his game. As For Bernier I think he’s as good as gone

    • Gary Empey

      Ben Scrivens is just one of a very long list of NHL quality goalies Edmonton has ruined, due to their past managements insistence on drafting high-scoring, one way forwards, while completely ignoring defense. While the Leafs have also been guilty of the same thing, it was never done to the extreme stupidity Edmonton management has shown.

      It does look like both teams have now come to their senses and installed better management.

  • Gary Empey

    Just because the Oilers are one point behind us in the overall standings, it would be foolish to take them lightly. The Oilers can and do, score some goals. Whenever they come to play at the ACC they always play an entertaining game, and more often than not walk away with the 2 points. Expect Sparks to see a lot of NHL rubber heading his way.

    • SEER

      I have to agree.. Some people talk like we are halfway through the season.., when we are just into the 2nd quarter.. Lots of things can change between now and the halfway mark, even…

      Oilers usually bring it, when they come here.. and this is Sparks’ first NHL game.., so I am no going to love him or hate him, just because of one game.., but it is great to finally see a back-up get a game in… Bibeau seems to have slumped, since being sent back without one..

      Maybe it’s just coincidence.., but I think when you call someone up (especially a goalie back-up) that you should never sit them longer than three games.. They seem to get stiff, after that..

      Hoping for a big win tonight, with Sparks..!

      Sweet & Wild: Garret Sparks 2014 & 2015 Extended Highlights – TML