Flashback to November 30th of 2015. After a 24 save performance, and a shutout win, Garret Sparks is reduced to tears of joy in a post game interview as he instantly becomes the toast of the Toronto hockey world, the media and twitter.
At just 22 years of age, Sparks had become an organizational afterthought as he made it all the way down to the ECHL and the Orlando Solar Bears during the 2014-15 season. Out of shape after injuries, indulging in poor eating (what young guy doesn’t do this?), and not giving the effort required in furthering his career to the next level, the native of Elmhurst Illinois was at a crossroads.
With a renewed dedication to this position, Sparks began to reinvent himself in hopes of becoming ‘the guy’ again and get some notice from the bosses at MLSE. After posting a .936 save percentage and a 2.36 GAA with the team from the Sunshine State, Garret was given the opportunity to shine again, this time at the Ricoh Coliseum with the Toronto Marlies.
During the 2015-16 Season the Marlies flourished based on a heavily talented hockey team, and solid goaltending from the tandem of Sparks and fellow puck stopper Antoine Bibeau. And in between their starts about 6 other goalies rotated through the lineup (seriously).
Putting up a .928 save percentage and a 2.33 GAA with the ‘Baby Leafs’ and an injury to James Reimer, it was time to give Garret Sparks his dream shot. A start at the ACC for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
How would the young man do on the biggest stage imaginable, the Leafs versus the Oilers on a Monday Night. Wait a second, these two teams playing against each other in 2015 wasn’t exactly a Stanley Cup preview, but it did give Sparks an opportunity to show exactly what he could do at the NHL level, and posting a shutout in any league is a very commendable task to accomplish.
So there he was. Toast of the Town. Twitter replaying the wonderful tears of joy on a regular loop, the Leafs faithful ready to anoint him the Number 1 for the next decade.
Sadly for Sparks, and those of us within the Leafs Nation faithful, the rest of the season did not go as it began in the NHL. Sixteen (16) more games of up and down play led to an overall record of 6-9-1 and a save percentage of .893. Not good enough, and with James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier healthy again, it was back to the friendly confines of the Ricoh Coliseum and the Toronto Marlies playoffs run.
The Marlies rode Antoine Bibeau for 11 starts during that Calder Cup run. Sparks limited to just 4 starts but have the higher save percentage and lower goals against of the two starters. Marlies failed to make the finals but after a deep run, hopes were high for the following season.
Something just didn’t seem to make sense when it came to Sparks however. Better numbers than Bibeau, similar size, lightning reflexes but a penchant for giving up bad goals at the wrong time seemed to have writing on the wall for Garret Sparks as the 2016-17 campaign kicked off. It appeared initially that the Marlies were pushing Bibeau to the majority of starts for the Blue and White.
Then came the social media blunder by Sparks. During an online conversation with a goalie group, the now 23 year old, came to the defense of a member of the group who was bullied by another member. Sparks made an error in delivery and was subsequently suspended by the Maple Leafs/Marlies for three games for sexist and threatening language.
Already apparently walking on thin ice with the organization this could have been seen as an end of a relationship with the Maple Leafs and Marlies.
Instead of rolling over and playing dead, Sparks appears to be working harder on his game with an intention of proving many people wrong who doubted him, and restoring the positive accolades when his name is mentioned as opposed to doubt and negativity.
While his record isn’t at the same level of last season, based on a team that isn’t as offensively talented nor consistent, his numbers have certainly returned to the high levels many expected out of him and hoped for him.
With a 5 win, 5 loss record (but with 2 shutouts) Sparks now has a sparkling 2.04 GAA and a solid .925 save percentage after a slow team start to this season. Sharing time with Bibeau, Ramo, Glass, Enroth, it would appear based on the stats that Garret Sparks has once again elevated himself to the forefront as a Starting Goaltender for the Toronto Marlies.
Sparks is athletic. He has decent size. He tends to spit rebounds out directly into the slot and at times relies heavily on that athletics instead of just making himself big and absorbing the shot and getting a whistle. Having said all of this, for some reason I love to see a guy who battles thru adversity and still manages to succeed.
Will the Marlies Coaching Staff see it the same way and start to give Sparks the majority of the starts moving forward? Or will they continue to see just what they have in Antoine Bibeau?
Unsure what Coach Sheldon Keefe, GM Kyle Dubas and the Organization will decide on, but let us give this kid a few more chances to shine before we throw him into the scrap heap or include him in a trade that we may just regret in the not so distant future.
Photo Creds: Christian Bonin @ChrisTSGphoto