The Toronto Maple Leafs saw their depth in net evaporate in an instant this morning, as Calvin Pickard and Curtis McElhinney were claimed off waivers by the Philadelphia Flyers and Carolina Hurricanes, respectively.
Losing both goaltenders with no assets to show for it is certainly this scenario’s worst-case outcome for the Leafs, albeit an expected one nonetheless. No one can say they didn’t see it coming. In fact, harbouring four different goaltenders each signed to NHL deals was the Leafs’ stab at tempting fate, even if management did attempt to sneak them through waivers by burying them in the flood of names which hit the wire on its most active day.
It didn’t work, and now they’re gone.
The reality is, for both players, the AHL was never truly an option.
Calvin Pickard and Curtis McElhinney are NHL-calibre talents, having proven so to varying degrees over the past few years, respectively. Sure, arguments can be made regarding just how effective either will be in their new landing spots, but expecting them to burn another year on the farm was simply not realistic.
A few questions now rise in the aftermath. Here’s my best crack at answering them.
Did the Leafs Make the Right Choice?
Well, yes and no.
From an asset management standpoint, losing two players of NHL-quality for nothing, and goaltenders, no less, is not ideal. Alas, Kyle Dubas‘ hands were tied.
Would it have been better to deal Pickard and McElhinney before either hit waivers to recoup some semblance of an asset in exchange for their services? Absolutely. Then again, the Leafs would’ve been entering those negotiations holding essentially no leverage.
Why would a GM pay anything of substance for someone he could otherwise get for free the very next day? I wouldn’t put such a move past them (Peter Chiarelli, I’m looking at you) but it’s highly unlikely.
Not to mention, at the time, it was conceivable for both Pickard and McElhinney to go unclaimed altogether, considering how the latter is a 35-year-old career backup with roughly 1.5 years worth of quality service under his belt in a limited sample size, while the former spent all last season as an AHL 1B after he passed through waivers as well. Couple that with how many teams around the league appear relatively set between the pipes exiting training camp, and persuading an NHL GM to forfeit a tangible return for either option was a tall ask.
So can we agree that the Leafs stumbled in this area? What about the goalie who started all this?
Should They Have Chosen Sparks?
Weighing all angles, Garret Sparks is the right choice for the backup role.
His disappointing preseason aside, the Leafs have spent the past 7 years developing Sparks into the goalie he is today, all done for the sole purpose of him achieving what he ultimately did on Monday. Over that period, Sparks has done nothing but excel at every level outside the NHL in which he’s logged minutes, and even his lacklustre stint with the big club during the 2015-16 tank year cannot truly be held against him upon factoring in the required context.
At the end of the day, Sparks was undeniably deserving of a shot, and that’s exactly what he’s been given. Losing two capable stop gaps in the process may be an unwelcome consequence, but such is the price of doing business in a salary capped league.
Lost in all this as well, is the Leafs are more or less breaking even on Pickard and McElhinney.
Pickard joined the Leafs via a trade with Vegas almost exactly 12 months ago, while McElhinney was, you guessed it, claimed on waivers mid-season in 2017. A sixth-round pick and prospect Tobias Lindberg, who was then dealt to Pittsburgh and similarly hit waivers this week, stands as the sole price paid for their combined services.
Lindberg was nothing more than a placeholder at the time of the deal, and his lack of a future in the Leafs organization made him otherwise expendable. The 6th rounder, on the other hand, is the true price at hand. It’s a lottery ticket, albeit one with the second-lowest odds of striking gold.
All the Leafs got out at their end was a Calder Cup, 1.5 years of above-league-average backup play, and a mentor to usher along his incumbent. The latter eventually proved successful. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this today.
Now, the onus shifts entirely over to Sparks. How he performs as Frederik Andersen’s newly-appointed understudy will present two distinct outcomes; either quickly soothing the sting of McElhinney and Pickard’s departures, or exacerbating it all the more.
The rest remains to be seen.
Thanks for reading!