At the end of the Toronto Marlies’ 6-0 win over the Rochester Americans on Tuesday evening, Leafs TV’s Bob McGill mentioned that the team could see the return of goaltender Garret Sparks this weekend. Sparks, who has posted a 0.923 save percentage and a 16-7-0 record through 24 appearances, suffered a hamstring injury nine minutes into Toronto’s February 25th game against the Hershey Bears.
It’s been a weird season for Sparks, missing time thanks to two injuries and a social media incident that led to an in-team suspension. But, he’s been getting some of the best results for a goaltender in the AHL for a second consecutive season, and with the Marlies in a dead heat for the North Division title (with other potential playoff teams chasing them), they’ll likely be happy to have their top performing puck-stopper back.
But that leads to another question: Who is the logical backup?
This is typically the point in the conversation where one would yell “Antoine Bibeau, obviously”. Actually, that might be a minority opinion: there are still many people convinced that the 22-year-old Bibeau is the best goaltending prospect in the system, for reasons ranging from superficial (French Canadian, likes Felix Potvin), to narrative-driven (had a Memorial Cup run a few years ago), to small sample (saw one of his shutouts) to casual eye test (battles for the puck a lot). I’ve shown my own skepticism that he’ll turn out to be a legitimate prospect on many different occasions, and that hasn’t changed. What has changed his is own performance: this year, he’s taken a step down from a slightly above average AHL goaltender to 41st of 47 goalies with at least 21 games played in save percentage; with all those behind him having played fewer minutes.
Bibeau started the year off very strong, but wilted around the time that the pipes became a rotating carousel. Maybe not getting into a groove plays into that, but now that he’s had the chance to make more regular starts, he still hasn’t done anything with it. If we define a “quality appearance” as playing to the AHL League Average of 0.904, he’s made just two of those in 17 games since Boxing Day; a shockingly low number. Ramp it up to the NHL standard of 0.915 and he has just seven of them all season.
An option for him to get his groove back? Similar to when an NHL goaltender is waived to get in some confidence-boosting games in the AHL, perhaps a run of time in the ECHL would do him some good. Solar Bears starter Ryan Massa, while good in his own right, is probably easier to steal starts from than Sparks right now, and he’ll be able to face more shots taken by slightly weaker competition. Especially for a goalie who tends to get involved in a lot of scramble plays (again, battling), switching the red goalposts for blue ones with the Orlando Solar Bears may be a welcome change of scenery to get his game back together.
The issue, and perhaps the surprising thing here, is that he’s never seen ECHL ice in his career. Sparks has made trips to all three previous years (lasting 10 games, 36 games, and 1 game respectively), while 2016 signing Kasimir Kaskisuo spent his first 32 games this year down with the Bears, posting a 0.899 save percentage. Now, Kaskisuo hasn’t necessarily earned a call up at this point either, but the theoretical scenario here is that he’d play backup minutes while Sparks gets an opportunity to take on a heavier workload than he has in previous seasons. Not to mention, he’s fared well with the Marlies so far, stopping 28 of 30 in his first appearance last week and stopping all 30 against Rochester.
The greater point, though, is that two of the three pro goalies have had the ECHL integrated into their pro cycles, so management clearly sees some sort of benefit in it. Bibeau forgoing it makes sense if he’s earned the chance to stick around, and while he’s never truly taken the AHL by storm, he’s never had an extended enough bad stretch that absolutely merits it.
Until now. We’re at a point now where his “cold streak” is being measured in months, rather than games. It’s at a time where every appearance matters, too; both for the team, who need to come out of every game with points right now, and even Bibeau himself. His entry-level contract expires this year, and if he wants the opportunity to prove himself to the organization again next year, he’s going to need to find a way to bounce back, and fast.
Now, it’s a matter of seeing if the team feels that direction is the correct one, or if they’d rather ride it out a little longer. With three games coming in a three-night span, I imagine we’ll have a better idea before the weekend wraps up.