Toronto Maple Leafs Swap Garret Sparks, Michael Hutchinson

TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 29: Garret Sparks #40 of the Toronto Maple Leafs waits in the dressing room prior to the third period against the New York Islanders at the Scotiabank Arena on December 29, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 29: Garret Sparks #40 of the Toronto Maple Leafs waits in the dressing room prior to the third period against the New York Islanders at the Scotiabank Arena on December 29, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images) /
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In a move that few saw coming, the Toronto Maple Leafs recalled goaltender Michael Hutchinson this morning from the Toronto Marlies.

Acquired on December 29th from the Florida Panthers in exchange for a conditional 5th round pick in the 2020 draft, Hutchinson has spent the bulk of tenure in Toronto thus far filling the starter’s role down on the Marlies. It’s a role he’s suited quite well to this point, too.

In 23 games with Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate, the 29-year-old netminder holds a sterling 14-5-1 record to go along with a .910 save percentage and two shutouts, effectively gifting the Marlies with the net-centric stability the team so glaringly lacked up until his arrival.

News of a call-up, however, still came entirely out of left field. While being warranted in its own right, Hutchinson’s promotion exists to send a message, revealing more about how the organization views its current backup option than the play of Hutchinson himself.

It’s no secret that Garret Sparks has struggled throughout his first full season as an NHL goaltender. Sitting with an 8-9-1 record and .902 save percentage through 20 games of sporadic usage thus far, Sparks has simply not grown into the reliable Plan B of which his role requires.

Now, the time for patience is over. With playoffs set to kick off in mere days, and a rematch with the Boston Bruins looming on the horizon for Toronto, Leafs management ultimately decided against entering the most high-pressure stretch of their season with Sparks as their number two.

So, a transition was made. And a swift one, at that.

Roughly one hour following the reports of Hutchinson’s arrival, Sparks’ stall within the Maple Leafs’ practice facility had vanished; his gear cleared out, and his presence at the team’s skate that morning entirely nonexistent.

Given the timing of the move, only so many outcomes were possible.

Sparks is ineligible to join the Marlies for their playoff run this year, having not been an official member of an AHL roster prior to the February 28th trade deadline. Sending him to the AHL would require Sparks to pass through waivers, as well, therein exposing the Leafs to the unnecessary risk of losing him for free.

Case in point; Sparks was bound to remain a Leaf on paper. The only question left, however, was whether or not he’d still be one in real life.

The answer, simply put, is a bit of both.

As reported by Elliotte Friedman, Sparks will now turn his focus solely toward working with each of the Leafs’ and Marlies’ goalie coaches in what will essentially serve as a system reboot. This appears to be the best option for the 25-year-old, when accounting for the restrictions of the moment.

Sparks is indeed under team control through next season, having been signed to a one-year extension on March 5th. Therefore, it’s entirely likely that Sparks will report to Leafs training camp once again this coming September, ready to battle for the still-vacant role of backup. He’s an asset the team is more or less handcuffed to for at least the near future, and with a dearth of options at their disposal, attempting to resurface the success Sparks’ found on the Marlies in prior years is the most enticing avenue they can take.

Sparks’ recalibration process with last for the next 10 days, per Mike Babcock. What happens after that, and who serves as Leafs’ backup, is still yet to be determined.

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