Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SPORTS
Just when you thought the backup goaltending situation was figured out, the Leafs throw you another curveball. This morning, the blue and white have called up Garret Sparks from the Toronto Marlies ahead of tonight’s game against the Ottawa Senators.
— Leafs PR (@LeafsPR) January 14, 2017
This is a little weird, given that Toronto literally just traded Jhonas Enroth and claimed Curtis McElhinney off waivers from Columbus. Certainly, the expectation would have been that was going to play tonight, after Andersen took care of business on Broadway.
Which now leaves you wondering what could be up. Did Andersen hurt himself last night? Is McElinney either not familiar enough with the system or also coming off an injury? Is one of them sick? Is this just a way for the Leafs to give Freddie the entire night off?
There’s a lot of questions you can ask of the situation, and I’m sure we’ll get some context soon enough. Many are also curious about the fact that it’s Sparks coming up over Antoine Bibeau, who has had stints already this year, but Bibeau already played last night on the road (giving up five in a loss to Syracuse), and has posted back to back starts where he’s allowed at least four goals.
With that said, even if this is just a case of the Leafs’ hand being forced, this is still a call-up that Sparks probably deserves. While he’s still yet to be offered a starter’s workload at the AHL level, he’s having yet another season where he’s well above the league’s average save percentage, running a 0.925 SV% attached to two shutouts and a 5-5-0 record. This brings him to a career record of 33-15-3 with 6 shutouts and a 0.923 save percentage, well above the AHL average of 0.905.
Some of the skepticism towards Sparks from the fanbase comes from his stint with the Leafs last season, with whom he had a bit of a roller coaster run. He made headlines in his first game when he became the first goaltender in Leafs history to start his career off with a shutout, and was an impressive 3-1-0 with a 0.921 in his first four games with the team. On December 17th, 2015 against the San Jose Sharks, however, Sparks was involved in a collision during warmups and then over-extended while attempting to make a save in the first period, and suffered a groin injury that had been all too familiar to him in prior years.
As a result, he missed a month of action and looked very inconsistent out of the gate for the Marlies once he returned to their lineup in late January. A string of three consecutive strong games came just at the right time, though, and he was called up at the trade deadline.
This is where the public perception died, because if we’re being honest about the entire ordeal, he fell off the rails from this point on. His first two efforts weren’t bad; he stopped 26 of 29 and 20 of 22 in those, but from that point on, had just two “quality starts” in his final ten games, stringing together a 3-6-1 record and a 0.877 save percentage; far from NHL quality numbers.
This year has looked a lot like a redemption year as far as on-ice performance goes, but another injury, a suspension for violating team social media policy, and the rotating veteran backup shuffle have kept him away from regular minutes.
We’ll see if Sparks ends up actually playing tonight, but I think in his case, the most important part of this call-up will come off the ice. With that prior suspension in mind and the give-and-take that comes with being out of the lineup, it’ll be crucial to him to show Leafs management and the coaching staff that his attitude remains positive and that his drive to succeed remains strong. Character carries almost as much weight as talent in this organization right now, so if a player that’s had their’s put under question a few times comes in acting positive while still being prepared to play, it’ll do him a world of good in getting back into the conversation. From a talent perspective, he’s probably the best option they’ve got after Andersen; he just has to prove to them that he’s bought into the process.
Prior TLN Sparks Content
- TLN Top 20 Prospects 2016: #20 Garret Sparks (by Katy Tearle)
- 2016 Marlies Year in Review: Garret Sparks (by Jeff Veillette)
- Leafs re-sign Garret Sparks to one-year contract (by Jeff Veillette)
- Garret Sparks drops gloves in ECHL scrap (by Jeff Veillette)
- Garret Sparks leaves game with lower body injury (by Jeff Veillette)
- The Toronto Marlies goalie carousel is ever intriguing (by Jeff Veillette)
- How Garret Sparks improved his game with a change in play style (by Garret Sparks)