A couple days ago, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that the Toronto Maple Leafs were taking calls on both Calvin Pickard and Garret Sparks.
It makes sense that the Leafs are looking to move a goalie. Between Frederik Andersen, Curtis McElhinney and the Pickard/Sparks duo, the Leafs have four goalies who could all be on the main roster, but obviously, that’s not a possibility.
Frederik Andersen is the clear starter and it’ll remain that way for, at the very least, a few years. A lot of people would say it’s a waste of time to debate over a backup goalie that’s only set to play 15 or 20 games, mostly coming in the second-half of back-to-backs. But instead of looking at it as simply deciding on a backup, the focus should be on taking a look at a potential future starter.
Don’t get me wrong, Frederik Andersen is elite and will remain elite for years to come. He has three years left on his current contract and has given the Leafs more stability between the pipes than they’ve had in over a decade. On a per-season basis, he’s as consistent as they come.
When his contract expires, he’ll be 31 years old and it’s anyone’s guess if he’s back after that. But picking a solid backup who could potentially transition into that starting role gives Toronto options when that time comes.
Curtis McElhinney has been outstanding as a backup since coming to Toronto. He quietly had a .934 save percentage last year and absolutely stole a few games for the Leafs. He gave us some great moments, like the save on Sidney Crosby with under a minute to go to secure Toronto’s playoff spot in 2017. But McElhinney is 35 years old and he’s only signed for one more year. Who knows how long he’ll even keep playing either. He’d only be set to play around 20 games once again this year- which I’m sure he’d play great in- but simply put, he just won’t be here long-term and it’s smarter to give to position to someone who will.
Calvin Pickard actually spent time as an NHL starter in Colorado when Semyon Varlamov went down with an injury. In 50 games with the Avalanche in 2016-17, Pickard posted a .904 save percentage, but keep in mind, that was with an absolute disaster of a team in front of him. In two other partial seasons with Colorado, Pickard posted a .922 save percentage in 20 games back in 2015-16 and a noteworthy .932 save percentage in 16 games in 2014-15. There’s no doubt Pickard could be an NHL backup and he could probably even split games with another solid goalie at the NHL level. But he was given the chance as a clear NHL starter and couldn’t really take a hold on the position.
What I’m trying to say is both McElhinney and Pickard have seen their time in the NHL and we have a some knowledge of what their potential is. But now it’s time to give Garret Sparks a chance.
We really have no idea of what Sparks can do given a real shot in the NHL and his ceiling may be higher than that of just a backup. Sparks told Luke Fox of Sportsnet “I expect to be in the NHL next year. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be.”
Now, after winning the Calder Cup a month later, you can be sure those feelings will have only grown stronger. But Sparks is right, he does deserve to be in the NHL next season.
Sparks has been incredible with the Marlies and was chosen as the clear starter over Pickard. He had a ridiculous .936 save percentage and 1.79 goals-against-average in the AHL and was one of the major reasons the Marlies won the Calder Cup. The only AHL goalies with a lower goals-against-average in an AHL season (40 games or more) within the last decade are Matt Murray and Peter Budaj. Murray is now a two-time Stanley Cup champion and Budaj had already been a regular NHL goaltender for nine years before that point. Sparks deserves a chance and more than just a 17-game stint with the worst Maple Leafs team to step on the ice in recent history. Sparks is four years younger than Andersen and though it’s far, far too early to assume that Sparks could someday replace Andersen as a starter, it would be a very good problem to have to make that decision.
The idea of trading Sparks really makes no sense to me. The Leafs aren’t going to get anything near what he’s worth because he hasn’t even played an NHL game in two years. We saw what happened with Nikita Soshnikov. A player born in the same year who tore up the AHL then got moved to St. Louis. The Leafs got a fourth-round pick in return. In my opinion, it makes a lot more sense to see what Sparks can do in the NHL rather than get a mid-round pick in return for him and use that pick to draft a goalie who you just hope can be as good as him.
It’s hard to say who the best recent goalie prospect to come out of Toronto’s system has been, but there haven’t been many. Maybe James Reimer, but he graduated from the AHL a long time ago (2011) and the point is it’s very hard to develop a solid goaltending prospect. But the Leafs have done that with Sparks. Sparks is only 25 years old, he was voted as the top goalie in the AHL this season and we’ve seen that playoff pressure obviously doesn’t phase him. All signs point to him having a ton of potential at the NHL level. But needs a chance. Sparks has now been in the organization for seven years since being drafted. In limited time with Orlando in the ECHL, he was outstanding. In parts of six seasons in the AHL with the Marlies, he’s been outstanding. Now he needs to get a chance in the NHL— and it should absolutely be with the Leafs.