The Toronto Maple Leafs have made two call-ups today; one reasonably expected, and the other not so much, but still deserved. To fill in the roles created by injuries to Nikita Soshnikov, Josh Leivo, Eric Fehr, and Frederik Andersen, the blue and white have called up Kasperi Kapanen and Garret Sparks from the Toronto Marlies.
The first of these two call-ups is the most obviously pressing one, in Garret Sparks. This comes in reaction to Frederik Andersen’s upper-body injury on Saturday night, which happened at some point in the first period and kept him out of the second and third period. Andersen is practicing with the team today, but it’s unknown whether that mean’s he’s ready to go.
Previously, Toronto’s minor-league call-up this year has been Antoine Bibeau, who was the Marlies’ starter through much of last year and in the playoffs. While he was capable in his two games that he appeared in for the big club, he’s been largely disappointing since, posting below AHL-average rolling numbers since December and posting an above 0.906 save percentage in just three of his last 24 appearances.
Sparks, on the other hand, has been on fire in the AHL this year. In 26 appearances, he’s posted an 18-7-0 record, and posted a 0.927 save percentage, tied for second best in the AHL among regular goaltenders. It’s the third consecutive season where he’s been in elite territory for a developmental pro league, posting similar results in the AHL last year and league-leading numbers in the ECHL in 2015.
Many, however, remember his rise and fall last season with the Leafs. After winning the heart of a city with a shutout in his first game, Sparks suffered an injury eleven and a half minutes into his fifth game with the Leafs on December 7th. He returned to the team after the deadline but appeared to still be having troubles with his groin throughout. This worked out to the Leafs’ favour as far as falling down the standings, but left a poor taste in the mouth of fans, as the then-22-year-old posted a 0.884 save percentage in his last 12 appearances.
Sparks has also had some hurdles this year, including an off-ice suspension for social media conduct and further injury trouble, most recently involving his hamstring, which kept him out for a month. With that said, having that break may make him better situated for the home stretch. “The last four weeks prior to playing were completely dedicated to getting my physical conditioning back to where I wanted it to be,” Sparks said after last night’s win over Syracuse. “When I got hurt, I wasn’t in a bad place, but I took the opportunity with the month off to take that next step.”
Even if Andersen is ready to play, Sparks is playing well enough that he may very well be an upgrade on Curtis McEhlinney in the backup position.
Up front, Kasperi Kapanen comes up for the Leafs. This comes after run of terrible luck for Toronto’s depth forwards. In essence: Nikita Soshnikov was injured against the Boston Bruins, so Eric Fehr took his place against Columbus. Fehr was injured against the Blue Jackets, so Josh Leivo took his place. Leivo was injured against the Devils, so Ben Smith took his place, and Smith’s line got their lunch handed to them possession wise against Buffalo so it was decided that a more skilled forward that could still penalty kill would be necessary.
Kapanen is definitely that guy. While I was skeptical of his ability to be the top prospect we had all hoped for, he made a fool of summer me very early in the year and hasn’t looked back since. While he missed several weeks this season due to an injury delivered to him by Jake Dotchin of the Syracuse Crunch, the twenty-year-old has put up tremendous numbers for a player his age, notching 18 goals and 24 assists for 42 points in as many games.
More than just that, though, every facet of his game has improved. He’s getting into smarter positions, his extra skating gear has somehow gotten faster, he’s more self-motivated, he’s taking more offensive risks, and he’s become incredibly defensively responsible over the course of the year. Kapanen has been a special teams beast; partially because of shot on the powerplay, but mostly because he has the acceleration to close gaps and spring opportunities on the penalty kill.
That last line is what really perks up Mike Babcock’s ears here. After all, the difference between Soshnikov and Leivo to him was always that Sosh could help him more when a man down than Leivo could at even strength. In Kapanen, they’d get a player who can do all sorts of things for them, giving a jolt of speed to just about any line he could theoretically play on, that can take a pick a corner in a high danger situation, and helping a penalty kill unit that still gives up a decent amount of shots carry the puck out of the defensive zone.
The fact that Babcock and Lou Lamoriello were at Sunday’s Marlies game, where Kapanen had an assist, took three shots, was a +2, played both special teams, and got a roughing minor for his role in a scrum probably cemented his case as the guy best suited to head up.
We’re going to have to see which line he plays on (the fourth being most likely for now), but I will say this; unless Kapanen falls flat on his face, he’ll likely get regular ice time for the rest of the stretch. He is the best of both Soshnikov and Leivo’s worlds, so even if they both get healthy, it’ll be hard for them to win the spot back.