Toronto Maple Leafs: Garret Sparks Wins Round One of Back-Up Battle

TORONTO, ON - MARCH 17: Garret Sparks #40 of the Toronto Maple Leafs during warm up before a game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Air Canada Centre on March 17, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - MARCH 17: Garret Sparks #40 of the Toronto Maple Leafs during warm up before a game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Air Canada Centre on March 17, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images) /

Garret Sparks won the first round of the NHL pre-season battle to be the Toronto Maple Leafs back-up goalie.

Of the three goaltenders battling for a spot: Curtis McElhinney, Calvin Pickard, and Garret Sparks, only Garret Sparks has kept the shutout streak alive after two NHL pre-season games.

Drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs 189th overall in the 7th round in 2011, Sparks aims to solidify a spot as Toronto’s backup goalie after posting a .936 save% last season for the Marlies and being named the AHL’s top goalie.

This article briefly summarizes the scoring from the first two pre-season games and then analyzes the careers of Sparks, Pickard and McElhinney before reflecting on what the these pre-season games mean for them.

Pre-season games one and two

The Leafs won both pre-season games against Ottawa 4-1.

In the first game, the Leafs had two goals from Tavares, one goal from Marner, (3 goals from their TMH line), and Borgman also scored.  Which may have helped Borgman gain a leg up in the battle for a spot on the Toronto Maple Leafs 3rd defensive pairing.

In the second game, the Leafs had two goals from Tyler Ennis (that’s not a typo, he scored twice and fit right in on the top line), one goal from Auston Matthews, and one goal from Jeremy Bracco.

Goalie’s careers thus far

Curtis McElhinney

Curtis McElhinney has done everything required of him last season as the Toronto Maple Leafs back up goalie.  For example, last season he posted a sparkling save percentage of .934% in 18 games, with 3 shut-outs.  And the season before (2016/17), he made Sportnet’s save of the season on a crazy pad save against Sydney Crosby in game 81 that sent the Leafs to the post season against the Capitals.

At this point, the job of back-up is McElhinney’s to lose.  However, if Sparks or Pickard impresses, it’s hard to tell whether or not McElhinney would successfully pass through waivers.  Would another team want a 35 year old goalie with a career save percentage of .909?  Or will they let McElhinney pass through waivers for the same reason the Leafs might?  Time will tell.

Calvin Pickard

Although the sample size is small, Calvin Pickard’s NHL career save percentage has dropped each year since in his 4 seasons in the league.  It fell from an impressive .932 in 16 games playing for Colorado in 2014/15, to .922 in 2015/16, to .904 in 50 games in 2016/17 (which is the most he’s played in a season and led to him being cut from the team), to an abysmal .857 in one game for the Leafs last season.

In the AHL, Pickard played second fiddle to Sparks last season as the Marlies went on a run to win the Calder cup.

While hockey is a team game, and you can never only blame a goalie, both Pickard and McElhinney allowed one goal to be scored on them in their pre-season action thus far.

Garret Sparks

Garret Sparks kicked off his NHL career with a bang by earning the first shutout in their NHL debut in Leafs history.  However, this was the year the Leafs were tanking (2015/16), so naturally the next several games after that weren’t rosy.

Sparks finished 2015/16 with a .893 save percentage in 17 NHL games.  At some point that year, he was demoted to the ECHL for one game.  There he began fighting for his career, posting a .962 save percentage that earned him a promotion back to the AHL where he finished the season with a modest .928 save percentage in 21 games.

Over the next two seasons Sparks improved his save percentage steadily (.922 save % with 5 shut outs in 2016/17, .934 save percentage with 6 shut outs in 2017/18) culminating in a Calder cup championship last spring.

Currently, aside from Anderson, Sparks is the Leafs only goalie who has stopped every puck he’s faced this pre-season.

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Sparks may very will win the job from Anderson and force McElhinney and Pickard to clear waivers and be reassigned to the Marlies.  These next few games will determine which of these 3 goalies on a one-way contract gets to stay, and which two must accept a demotion or move elsewhere.

It’s going to be a battle for the back-up goalie job.  The next round of this battle is against Buffalo on September 20th and 22nd.

Thanks for reading!

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