Our third instalment of Future Star Friday brings about a man who captured the hearts of Leafs fans by shutting out the Oilers in his NHL debut and following it up with one of the more memorable post game interviews in recent history.
The question then becomes: was that Sparks’ 15 minutes or does he have what it takes to at least be a backup in the best league in the world? He’s shown the ability to excel in the lower ranks, his numbers improving every year in both the OHL and AHL, his prolonged stint in the NHL to close out the 2015-16 season left a lot to be desired. Obviously worth noting is that team was putrid and a nightmare of a situation to throw a budding prospect into. Sparks had a bounce back year in the AHL however, finishing sixth in GAA and tenth in SV%. Not the most in depth or reliable statistics but numbers for the minors aren’t exactly abundant.
What differentiates Sparks from our other two prospects we’ve featured in this series is that he is the likeliest to see significant time with the big club this season. Barring a vast improvement over the summer by Garret or a drop off the cliff from McElhinney, Sparks will start the year in the minors. However, it should be noted that McElhinney played above his career sv% last year with the Leafs which either means he’s finely tuned his game at the age of 34 or he’s due for a regression. We’ll hope for the best but prepare for the worst here, opening up a potential repeat scenario of Enroth last season. McElhinney will likely start the year as the team’s backup but on a short leash. If he falters over the course of his first few starts, Sparks may finally get his chance to become a full time NHLer.
Garret Sparks is a good goalie. His numbers have consistently reflected that throughout his career. He uses his size well, albeit quite unorthodox in his technique. Think Pekka Rinne with a little bit more refinement. He’s athletic.
See? Take a second and appreciate that gif. That’s an incredible display of leg strength and flexibility and not a lot of goalies can pull that off. The unfortunate thing is his reliance on his body rather than his mind/technique leaves him susceptible to being out of position and having to scramble to make saves. This makes easy saves look more difficult than they are and can sometimes give us the impression a goalie is better than he is (see: Quick, Jonathan). The former 7th round pick often “gives up his stomach” on goal mouth plays or when sliding across on one timers, ending up reaching for the save rather than just being where he needs to be and able to recover to face multiple shots (if the first one isn’t already in). The best goalies in the world right now make stopping pucks look easy. They make saves throughout the game that require an extraordinary combination of anticipation, technique and athleticism that will never make the highlight reel because they were “simply” in the right spot when they needed to be. Sparks struggles with this concept, stopping the first shot but often needing to either battle for positioning or a bailout from his defencemen to clear any rebound opportunities.
If you recall, I started this section by mentioning Garret’s a good goalie before ripping on him for an entire paragraph. The thing is goalies like him are employed in the NHL and have achieved plenty of success emulating similar styles. Sparks will never make a bad team good or a good team great but what he can do is make the saves he should and a few he shouldn’t while the team in front of him controls the play for the majority of the game and takes care of their defensive assignments. That doesn’t sound that far off from what the Leafs need, does it?
Management seems to believe he can in fact back up Andersen, having signed the Elmhurst, Illinois native to a 2 year contract extension worth $675k/year. The strange part of course is that McElhinney got $850k for the same term. This looks odd from the outside but if we dig a little deeper a plan seems to emerge. Sparks is guaranteed $250k at the AHL level for this season but that number nearly triples next season to $700k. Both the term and AHL money make his contract virtually waiver proof as few teams will be looking for a goalie that matches Sparks’ current capabilities on that contract.