Anyone who has ever spoken to me, or followed me on Twitter when the Marlies are playing has seen my absolute love for Garret Sparks and his checkerboard gear. In fact, looking at the final votes, I was the only one of the TLN staff who ranked him in the Top 15. That’s only because they’re all wrong. Or I’m biased. It could be either.
|Jeff||Ryan H.||Shawn||Ryan F.||Adam||Dom||Jess||Katy||Readers|
|G||Elmhurst, IL||6’2||204||Left||Toronto Marlies||2011 Draft (7-190th)|
Last year was a gongshow for the entire Leafs organisation. It was all over the place for the entirety of the Leafs goalie system. Goalies were up, down, and sideways across the entire organization. Sparks went from starting in the ECHL to starting in the NHL, and stopped at pretty much every goaltending position in the organisation in between.
The Eye Test
While part of me just wants to blame the late-season roster gutting for Sparks being (sometimes literally) a bit all over the place, it’s not in my nature to just put my head in the sand like that. Sparks has his faults. He is a hard working player with the ability and potential to develop into not necessarily an elite goaltender, but most definitely a solid one.
Sparks has a reputation as a good kid and a hard worker whose style remains raw and who – despite his success with the Marlies – obviously needed work to succeed at the NHL level. He has come a long way since he was a seventh-round pick fewer than five years ago, and it’s possible he is a late-bloomer.
It’s also worth considering that most of his NHL appearances came from after suffering a groin injury in December, which may have dragged him down a bit.
When you look past the occasional cringeworthy games, Sparks shows promise. You can see what could be there. And, as a prospect that’s still being developed, I think the belief in what could be is almost as important as what is.
As Seen on TV
Sparks got called up to the big leagues and pulled off the impossible, a shutout in his NHL debut against the Edmonton Oilers. Something that has never been done in franchise history.
Sparks also played in all three professional leagues, starting and finishing his season in the AHL, but also playing games in the NHL and the ECHL as well. He had consistency issues, to say the least. To quote the famous nursery rhyme, “When he was good, he was very, very good; but when he was bad, he was horrid.”
In the 2014-15 season, injury prevented Sparks from making the AHL out of training camp. He spent the majority of the season down in Orlando with the Solar Bears of the ECHL. He used that year to recover, train, and regroup, focussing all his energy on getting back into the AHL and getting into the NHL, eventually posting a 0.936 SV%.
From an interview with InGoal Magazine, when asked what he felt was his biggest strength and what had gotten him back to form…
I immerse myself in goaltending so deeply and criticize every little thing I do or see done, so I would have to say my ability to watch the position and learn from it would be my biggest strength. I have physical tools, but I would be nothing without the stability of my head and my instinct.
The Leafs have signed Sparks to a two-way deal for the 2016-17 season, $575,000 in the NHL, and $100,000 in the AHL. It’s a pretty good deal. It’s a deal that says, ‘Prove yourself’. And Sparks has shown before that he can take a challenge like that and run with it. As of right now, the Leafs haven’t signed an “official” backup goalie, despite the rumour mill flying about Enroth (watch them sign five goaltenders the second this is posted).
Sparks could be the “unofficial” backup, or the “Plan B” if Leafs management can’t reach an acceptable deal with any of the backups they’re in talks with. The Leafs organisation as a whole is going to be very interesting to watch this season. Sparks and his part in the organisation’s goaltending is going to be nothing short of fascinating.
Ideally, Sparks will share the Marlies’ starting position with Bibeau this season, and prove himself worthy of a bigger and better contract this year. Ideally, he will iron out the inconsistencies in his game, even if it means his outstanding games go to ‘pretty darn good’, but his utter shockers come up to ‘could’ve been better’. But for now, Garret Sparks as the Leafs twentieth best prospect? Yeah. That’s about right.