Toronto Maple Leafs: Curtis McElhinney Wins Round Two

BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 15: Curtis McElhinney #35 and Garret Sparks #40 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skate off the ice following their 5-2 victory against the Buffalo Sabres in an NHL game on March 15, 2018 at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 15: Curtis McElhinney #35 and Garret Sparks #40 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skate off the ice following their 5-2 victory against the Buffalo Sabres in an NHL game on March 15, 2018 at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images) /

Curtis McElhinney decisively won round two of the battle to become the Toronto Maple Leafs back-up goalie.

McElhinney was on fire against Buffalo.  He shut them out, stopping all 21 of the shots he faced.  Sparks posted a save percentage of .711, allowing three goals on 11 shots.

With the goals from tonight, and the half game against Ottawa: Sparks allowed three goals, and McElhinney allowed one.  Each of them posted one shut out.

What was the significance of this Toronto Maple Leafs pre-season game against Buffalo?

Curtis McElhinney made a clear statement with his outstanding play tonight that he isn’t ready to lose his job as back-up.

McElhinney, a native of London Ontario, played with all the confidence and skill you’d expect from an NHL veteran, and showed Babcock and the rest of Leafs nation that he’s still able to handle 15-25 games per season.

Sparks, on the other hand, had a shaky performance.  Generally, any save percentage below .900 is unacceptable at the NHL level.  With the .711 he posted on Friday against Buffalo, Sparks greatly reduced his chance of winning the back-up job unless he emphatically bounces back in the next pre-season game he’s in.

While Sparks has been a member of the Leafs organization for 7 years since they drafted him in 2011, he may be gone unless he wins this back-up battle against McElhinney.  He has proven himself to be too good for the AHL level.  However, this game may have shown Leafs management, and Sparks himself, that he simply isn’t ready to take the job from McElhinney.

McElhinney is 35, isn’t he too old to be the Leafs back-up goalie?

Watching McElhinney play tonight, I was reminded of Johnny Bower’s remarkable story I read about in an article from the Star in 2017.

The article discussed how Bower toiled in the AHL for over  before 10 years before getting his shot with the Leafs in 1959 at age 34.  In the next decade, he would win 4 Stanley Cups for the Toronto Maple Leafs (1962, 1963, 1964, and 1967), and win the Vezina trophy as the leagues top goalie twice (1961, 1965).

Put differently, in Bower’s 12 seasons with the Leafs, beginning at age 34, he was named the top goalie at age 36 and age 40, and he won Stanley cups for he Leafs at age 37, 38, 39, and 42).

My point?

Bower had 6 outstanding campaigns as a Toronto Maple Leafs goalie while he was in his mid 30s and early 40s.  So, history shows it’s theoretically possible that we could see McElhinney perform at an MVP level despite his age.

McElhinney grew up in London, Ontario.  Loving the Leafs is all he’s ever known.  More importantly, he makes big saves when the team needs them most.  Perhaps he has a higher level that we haven’t seen yet, or that we only saw glimpses of last season when he posted a .934.

What’s next for Sparks and McElhinney?

In the next few games, the tension between the two goalies will rise.  Even if they’re friends off the ice, they are still two professionals competing for a job that only has one opening.  It’s like they’re in a game of musical chairs right now with three people and one chair (there’s still an outside chance of Pickard winning the job).  Here’s how Sparks or McElhinney’s destinies may unfold:

Curtis McElhinney

Future A:

If McElhinney continues playing like he did against Buffalo: he’ll keep his job as back-up and remain with the Leafs for at least one more season.  This would all but guarantee Sparks lands in a new organization.

Future B:

If McElhinney’s performance takes a nose dive, he will be surpassed by Sparks (or Pickard) in the eyes of Leafs management, and he will have to pass through waivers to be demoted to the AHL because of his one-way contract.  Once the Toronto Maple Leafs top brass reaches that conclusion, they will almost certainly trade him to a team hungry for a competent goalie (but low on the list of waiver claim priority).

(Note: check out this article for a quick overview on waiver claim priority.  Basically, it’s similar to the draft lottery in that teams that finish poorly have first dibs at claiming players that are put on waivers if multiple teams attempt to claim said player).

Garret Sparks

Future A:

If things continue on their current trajectory, Sparks will lose the battle for the back-up goalie job, and he’ll have to earn NHL minutes in a different organization.  Part of me wants Sparks to win this battle, I even wrote an article recently about how I thought Sparks beat McElhinney in round one of their pre-season battle, because Sparks posted a shutout and McElhinney didn’t.   But Big Mac answered that challenge tonight.  Similar to what would happen to McElhinney if Leafs management decides Sparks isn’t playing for the Leafs this year, Sparks will likely be traded before he hits waivers because he’s too talented pass to through waivers successfully and play in the AHL  for the Marlies another year.  Therefore one can bet at least one team is sure to see value in an AHL champion goalie and obtain (whether through waiver or trade).

Future B:

If Sparks turns things around, he’ll block out the noise, dial-in in the next few games, and out perform McElhinney.  A tall order, but not one the Calder cup champion is unable to fill.  Sparks may have taken it too easy this off season, and could just need a few games to shake off the rust.  In today’s NHL that seems to favor youth and future potential, Sparks still has more upshot than McElhinney, especially over the next 2 or 3 seasons.  So we may see Leafs management keep Sparks even if the battle between the two goalies is close.

One thing is certain, Anderson is the Toronto Maple Leafs number one goalie, and there are three players battling for the back-up spot.  Two of those three players are going to come up short, no matter how much we may think they deserve it.

Who do you want to win the back-up goalie battle?

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I honestly would be happy to see McElhinney or Sparks win, particularly if we can get something in return for the other without having to lose them on waivers.

Thanks for reading!