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Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski / USA TODAY Sports

With Apologies to Curtis McElhinney, It’s Time to Free Garret Sparks

Two days removed from American Thanksgiving, it would be wise for Leafs fans to be thankful for Frederik Andersen’s lights-out play of late. The guy behind him, as we were reminded last night, has left something to be desired.

Curtis McElhinney, Don’t Read This

It was an ugly outing for Curtis McElhinney Saturday at the ACC, one that saw him post an ugly .850 save percentage en route to a 4-2 loss to the Washington Capitals on home ice. The first goal allowed, in particular, was an atrocious one, seemingly plucked straight out of 1983:

That goal — or his overall performance, for that matter, was hardly an outlier either. Despite a lukewarm 2-2-0 record in four appearances this season and an impressive performance in Boston two weeks prior, the fact remains that Curtis McElhinney has simply not been good enough for the Leafs. Heck, the degree to which he’s looked out of place this year should likely push him out of the NHL, let alone off of one of the league’s better teams. Case in point: McElhinney’s .900 save percentage through those four appearances places him at 49th in the league amongst goaltenders who have appeared in at least that many games, per hockey-reference.

That’s 49th out of 67 goalies who have played in four or more games, mind you. Even Steve Mason, who has been abysmal in his first year in Winnipeg, ranks eight spots ahead of McElhinney with a .903 in 8 GP.

You could call it a small sample size, and that’s not technically wrong. Four games in the second half of back-to-backs isn’t the cushiest sample to pull from. However, this a four-game sample from McElhinney’s 172-game resume that’s seen him average a .905 save percentage throughout his career. Beyond that, backup goalies on teams with a clear-cut starter likely aren’t going to enjoy a much better quality of starts. Going into the season, this was the expectation, and Curtis McElhinney hasn’t held up his end of the bargain. It’s time for a change.

Garret Sparks, Hello

Most casual Leafs fans probably remember Garret Sparks as the True Hero of Tank Nation™ who helped the Leafs fall comfortably into last place during the 2015-16 season, win the draft lottery, and draft Auston Matthews. In other words, we should already like him!

In all seriousness, his 6-9-1 record during his first NHL look was far from nice. And to be fair, his .893 save percentage through 17 NHL appearances wasn’t anything to write home about.

But maybe we *should* be writing home about this:

That’s our boy Garret, sitting atop the American Hockey League in save percentage with a .947 through 12 games, which is just goofy. This, too, after putting up a .922 last season (good for 10th in the league) as well as a .928 the season before, albeit in just 21 games and therefore not enough to qualify for the AHL’s 1440-minute minimum to be ranked.

Despite the acquisition of Calvin Pickard from the Vegas Golden Knights earlier this season, many began turning their attention to Sparks earlier this month when he broke the Toronto Marlies record for shutouts with the 11th of his AHL career in a game against the Laval Rocket. In one sense, it’s a notch on Sparks’ belt and a reflection of his stellar AHL numbers and his potential to step into the backup role for the Leafs.

On the other hand, it’s a dubious record to hold, indicative of just how long Sparks, 24, has been believed to be ready to jump into seeing some NHL action again. The 2017-18 is Sparks’ sixth season with the Marlies, with just 17 NHL games to show for his efforts, all of which were spent with the aforementioned team of misfit toys who made up the worst team in the NHL 2 years prior.

All of this, too, comes exactly one year after Sparks was suspended by the Leafs for a social media controversy in an online community for which Sparks was serving as an admin. At the time, it seemed as if Sparks’ days in the Leafs’ organization were numbered. Even one year later, it’s hard to say how much the controversy has affected the decision not to give Sparks another look with the Leafs, particularly when considering the fact that former prospect Antoine Bibeau got a two-game look last season after Jhonas Enroth failed to impress.

If McElhinney’s woes this season at all mirror Enroth’s, the Leafs’ upcoming stretch would be as good a time as any for Garret Sparks’ NHL redemption.

The Road Ahead

The tail-end of November and the month of December will be a grueling stretch for the Leafs, no doubt. With 12 of 15 games on the road and four back-to-back situations, opting to embark on this trip with Curtis McElhinney would seem ill-advised.

Between December 9th and 29th, the Leafs play four sets of back-to-backs in under three weeks(!!!). The opponents they’ll draw in the back half of those sets are: Edmonton at home, Detroit on the road, Columbus on the road, and Colorado on the road. Those teams currently sit 28th, 20th, 4th, and 21st in the league, respectively.

If the Leafs want to look at seriously shoring up their backup position, as they very well should, they’d be hard-pressed to find a better span of games to call up Sparks for a three-week “show me” stint. Easing him in games against a couple of struggling teams before giving him a proper challenge against the Blue Jackets (or maybe even the first half of that set against the Hurricanes instead) would be a terrific strategy for two reasons. For one, the team would get to see what Sparks can bring to the NHL table with two more years of experience under his belt. And, secondly, a Sparks call-up in conjunction with drawing largely weaker opponents on those back halves would help Sparks re-adjust to the pace of play in the NHL whilst still starting games that he would be expected to draw as a backup to Frederik Andersen.

All in all, it’s as good a time as any for Lou to give the “Show Me What You Got” call to Garret, and get him into a few games. Sparks may have a thing for sporting beautiful throwback-inspired gear, but his style of play is far from the 90’s revival that is Curtis McElhinney.

Plus, with a game against the Oilers at the ACC coming up in this stretch, we all want to see this again.

 

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  • Stan Smith

    I would rather see Sparks getting the bulk of the starts with the Marlies than sitting on the bench with the Leafs. I think you are being way too hard on Mac. I don’t know if any other goalie in the NHL could get 4 starts in 52 days, and play any better. Since Mac has come to the Leafs he has done an admirable job in what has to be the most difficult position. He sometimes sits for weeks on end. As coaches like to say, all you can ask of a back up goalie is to give your team a chance to win. So far this season Mac has done that three out of four games.

  • leafdreamer

    Although this is a nice story and I’m sure Sparks will get his well-deserved (second) moment in the spotlight and is probably the Leafs’ backup of the future, I think McElhinney deserves a few more starts – he’s given us .500 goaltending and his biggest ‘failure’ is letting two Ovechkin snipes in – that is not a fireable offence and it’s a far cry from the .872 save % and a 0-3-1 record that Enroth got canned for last season. Let’s not forget that Calvin Pickard is also with the organization and currently holding a superior NHL record to the other two. His numbers in the AHL (.930 and 2.03 GAA) are not bad either. We have very good depth at goalie position right now and there’s nothing wrong with that as there’s nothing wrong with letting Sparks and Pickard win it all with the Marlies before they come up to play behind Andersen. For now, we’re getting exactly what we need from Curtis McElhinney.

  • Matmarwill

    I agree kappy. The leafs need to test sparky to see what they’ve got, and this stretch of games is an ideal time. If the buds don’t test Garret they may lose him on waivers next fall. And as stated earlier in these comments, it’s very unlikely that mcE is picked up on waivers.

    It is excellent that the buds now appear to have good depth at goaltender. I have nothing against Curtis, but the leafs may have a better, longer term option in sparks. I would like to see the load lessened on freddy. If you give the backup 25-30 games per year, and he’s a good backup, you have a better rested starter for the playoffs and better insurance in case the starter gets injured. Another good point is that sparky has been in organization a long time, has reached the age of goaltender maturity, is currently the best goalie in the ahl, has earned a look in the nhl and we don’t want to lose him on waivers next year.

    • leafdreamer

      a) Martin Brodeur averaged 70 + starts through his prime with Lou’s NJ Devils. Lou got us Andersen to play a high number of games and be undisputed #1. You can wish all you want that the games be distributed equally between Sparks Kaskisuo and Andersen or whatever but we all know it ain’t happening as long as Lou is in charge.

      b) if Sparks continues to put up the numbers he’s been putting up in the AHL and wins the Cup he won’t be getting waived don’t you worry. Next year’s waivers shouldn’t be anyone’s concern right now.

    • leafdreamer

      c) of course McHileinney would get picked up on waivers – many teams are finding out that their goalie situation is not ideal – Niemi got picked up for crying out loud. I think this is not a good time to be waiving goalies that are giving you decent starts.

      • Matmarwill

        Trying out a backup who could be potential nhl starter is a far better strategy than sticking with a guy who cant be a starter. Freddy has gotten injured in the past and insurance is prudent. Babcock makes the decisions on who starts and how often, not lou, and babs often platooned in detroit from what i recall. If they think McE will be picked up on waivers they should make a trade. Pickard cleared waivers so McE should to, in any case.