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.