Toronto Maple Leafs: Deciphering the Path of Garret Sparks

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 21: Toronto Maple Leafs Goalie Garret Sparks (40) makes a save during the first period of the NHL preseason game between the Buffalo Sabres and the Toronto Maple Leafs on September 21, 2018, at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, ON, Canada. (Photograph by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 21: Toronto Maple Leafs Goalie Garret Sparks (40) makes a save during the first period of the NHL preseason game between the Buffalo Sabres and the Toronto Maple Leafs on September 21, 2018, at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, ON, Canada. (Photograph by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

With a golden opportunity in arms reach to cement himself as the Toronto Maple Leafs backup, Garret Sparks could not have picked a worse moment to put forth one of his more forgettable efforts of the calendar year.

5 goals on 36 shots, a save percentage of .863, and a handful of grisly positional errors are what the reigning AHL Goaltender of the Year offered up instead, as he failed to gain a coveted edge in the ongoing battle of the backups currently permeating Leafs camp.

Even worse, Sparks’ dud came against some decidedly lacklustre competition, a Canadiens roster that, for the most part, likely resembles the 2018-19 edition of the Laval Rocket.

TLDR; it wasn’t pretty.


Before I go on, a disclaimer is needed.

Goalies, as a screaming Leafs fan once famously said, are voodoo. Judging their performances in the hope of accurately projecting long-term success is a near impossible task, particularly when confined to the minuscule sample size of the preseason.

Most of the scouts I’ve quizzed on this topic outright admit their lack of goalie knowledge immediately. They’re too unpredictable, requiring these scouts to devote their entire practice solely to the one position. (Shout out, Cat Silverman)

Recency bias is the goalie’s silent killer.

Former Senator, Andrew Hammond, famously earned himself the nickname of “Hambuglar” back in 2014-15 thanks to a 24-game stretch in which he posted a 20-1-2 record, 1.79 GAA, and .941 save percentage en route to singlehandedly dragging a lifeless Sens roster into a playoff spot.

The 2005-06 season saw Jean-Sebastien Aubin accomplish nearly the same result for the Leafs, as his record of 9-0-2 and .924 save percentage came ever so close to punching their postseason ticket before ultimately falling a single point short.

Ottawa proceeded to waive Hammond twice in the years to come, shipping the 30-year-old to the Colorado Avalanche midway through last season, who then ultimately cut bait with him entirely over the summer. Aubin followed up his miracle run in 2006-07 with 19 games of .876 goaltending.

Hammond enters Minnesota Wild today camp on a one-year, league minimum deal to compete for their backup job. By 2009, Aubin had washed out of the NHL altogether.

So, maybe don’t read all that much into Sparks’ less-than-promising preseason.

Effectively throwing away an AHL track record in which no save percentage ever finished lower than .915 over the course of a 5-year span in favour of 3 sub-par games would be horrific asset management. This is the AHL’s Goaltender of the Year, for Pete’s sake. A Calder Cup Champion.

He, at the very least, deserves some modicum of leeway.

Flip Side

Or, does he?

Sure, Sparks has accomplished his fair share of success at the AHL level. That’s undeniable.

He’s the current holder of a number of Marlies’ franchise records, including the highest totals in games played for a goaltender, wins, and shutouts, accomplishments which serve as a testament to his personal development over the years, albeit more so to the sheer amount of time he’s been with the team.

This is year 7 for Sparks in the Leafs organization, and at this point, his continued presence represents more than that of just a bubble-prospect fighting for a roster spot. Sparks is now something greater, the embodiment of a 7 year-long organizational investment.

That’s 7 years worth of resources allotted to Sparks’ future as a Leaf, 7 years worth of man-hours dedicated solely to his ascension, and, not to mention, 7 years worth of patience.

It hasn’t been an easy road for Sparks to get where he rests today. The 25-year-old has certainly grappled with a few self-inflicted hurdles since hearing his name called at the draft back in 2011, clashing with his coaching staff in the past on numerous occasions, and even earning himself a team-sanctioned suspension in 2016-17 for unacceptable off-ice conduct.

This isn’t to say that Sparks hasn’t matured in the years since. By all accounts, him and Marlies’ head coach, Sheldon Keefe, managed to establish a healthy and productive relationship with each other last season which ultimately culminated in a Calder Cup.

That’s tangible personal growth from a player in desperate need of it, shedding a positive light on the odds of Sparks one day cracking an NHL roster.

Only, it appears as if more learning is needed.

Choose Your Words Carefully

As I said earlier, judging a goaltender’s performance from a small sample size is a fool’s errand. So, that’s not what I’m going to do. Instead, I’ll be focusing on some of the more widely applicable aspects of being a hockey player in general us leymans can actually understand.

Specifically, Sparks’ recent sit down with James Mirtle of The Athletic.

There’s one quote in here I think warrants attention. When asked whether he spends his summer training alongside a group of fellow goaltenders, Sparks offered up this retort;

“No. I don’t play goalie in the summer. That’s one of the more unique things about my process. I find it beneficial to get out of the net. I find that if you spend too much time in the net in the summer, you’re doing things that aren’t game realistic and aren’t game situations and you get into a pattern of summer hockey. It’s hard to get out of that.”

Look, there’s certainly truth to what Sparks is saying here. Everyone, athletes included, require physical breaks in order to fend off a burnout, especially when considering how the position of goalie is arguably hockey’s most taxing.

It’s understandable for Sparks to desire venturing outside of the net a bit in the summer to diversify. Only, here’s the thing.

Sparks is one of 4 different Leafs goaltenders signed to an NHL contract through 2018-19. His spot on the big club is lightyears from guaranteed, and, come training camp, his play must leave the Leafs’ brass with no other choice than to promote him, or risk plummetting him down the depth chart once again.

Which begs the question:

Why on earth would you willfully reveal to one of the most popular outlets in sports media that you don’t play the position your team pays you to play for the entirety of the offseason? 

What good could have possibly come from that?

Out of the 700 or so players in the entire NHL, there is only one who can get away with saying something even remotely similar to that, and it’s Phil Kessel. Even he’s pushing it.

Kessel, by the way, is a 2-time Stanley Cup Champion, 6-time 30-goal-scorer, and perennial NHL All-Star. His roster spot is a lock prior to him even boarding the plane to training camp. Yours, Garret, is not.

Sparks has been with the Leafs for close to a decade now, and 3 of those years have been under the tutelage of Mike Babcock. Now, if you’ve ever listened to a Babcock presser at any point over the course of your life, you were probably capable of determining exactly what the veteran coach looks for in his players; hard work.

Naturally, I’m sure Babcock adored hearing his potential backup puck stopper talk about spending his whole offseason doing decidedly not that.

The Dubas Factor

“But Kyle Dubas loves Sparks!” you argue. “There’s no way he’d let him go”

Well, does he?

It wasn’t Dubas who drafted Sparks, Brian Burke did. In fact, over the course of Dubas’ time as Marlies GM, it was Antoine Bibeau who repeatedly logged more time between the pipes of the two, even when Sparks emerged as the clearly superior option.

Sure, some of that can be attributed to the constant battles with injury Sparks endured which shelved him for stretches at a time. Although, when eventually healthy, the Marlies consistently baulked in handing Sparks the bulk of their starts, despite him routinely bearing a save percentage some 30 points higher than Bibeau’s.

Even when Bibeau departed in the offseason, the Leafs quickly sprung into action and swung a deal for goaltending depth in Calvin Pickard, forfeiting assets in the process.

Why would acquiring Pickard be necessary if the organization truly believed in Sparks? Did they feel he needed to a push?

Of course, that’s merely speculation at this point. The hope is that the 25-year-old with a half-decade of professional experience wouldn’t need to be pushed.

Dubas has spoken highly of Sparks in the past. Then again, his actions, at times, have seemingly told a different story. In Dubas’ first year at the big club’s helm, there’s really no guarantee that Sparks joins him.


Here we reach the crux of the argument.

Yes, Sparks has put together a thoroughly dreadful preseason at the worst possible time professionally. And yes, his track record of AHL success should warrant him more leash than a mere 3 preseason games.

So, he needs to take it.

No more excuses, no more runway to fall back on. This is it. Sparks clearly wants to make the Leafs, going so far as to repeatedly state his desire to be part of the team’s future success, and publicly declaring a lack of positional on-ice training is not the way to accomplish that.

He can rest on all the AHL success he wants. But until any of that translates to the level above, it matters little in the context of a 3-way goaltending battle.

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