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Maple Leafs have at least two potential backup goalies knocking on the door

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Are they going to let one in?

Garret Sparks
Garret Sparks back in the day.

Hall of Fame forward Danielle Goyette did a fun interview during Friday’s Leafs broadcast. She talked about how she was so “competitive” with Hayley Wickenheiser when they played on a line together for Team Canada that they put Cassie Campbell between them on the bench.

That competitive drive to outdo even your linemate to the point of animosity is part of what makes elite-level players tick. Without it, even highly skilled players don’t make it to the NHL.

Life is different for goalies. Goalies are the sort that when Tuukka Rask had an equipment problem on Saturday night, it was Anton Khudobin on the bench who sorted him out. Goalies are a tandem, a pair, and the starter and the backup are the only players on the team who really understand each other. Their competition is all inside their own head.

Right? Yeah, I don’t think so.

The difference for goalies is that there’s only two of them in the NHL at any one time, and on a team like the Leafs, the pecking order there is obvious. Frederik Andersen may be off in his own cerebral world of the starter, battling what’s inside his head, what his team is doing in front of him, and what the opponents are shooting at him, but Curtis McElhinney knows he’s in a contest all the time with men he never sees. He’s got three ghosts haunting him: Garret Sparks, Calvin Pickard and Kasimir Kaskisuo.

The trade that brought Pickard to the Leafs had to be a loud warning bell to McElhinney that he can be replaced at any moment. The harsh side of hockey as a business can come to the fore, and he can be brushed aside — waived, maybe claimed, maybe traded — the second the Leafs think one of those three is the better option as a backup.

Contracts

Contract status of Maple Leafs goalies

Name 2017-18 Contract Details 2018-19 Contract Details Expires
Name 2017-18 Contract Details 2018-19 Contract Details Expires
Curtis McElhinney 850,000 One-way 850,000 One-way UFA
Garret Sparks 675,000 Two-way 675,000 One-way RFA
Kasimir Kaskisuo 925,000 Two-way, waiver exempt RFA
Calvin Pickard 1,000,000 One-way RFA

No one is making enough that their contract should decide who plays where. All of these deals can be fully buried in the AHL. Sparks’ odd deal where he is on a two-way this year and a one-way next, saves the not very cost-conscious Leafs a few hundred thousand dollars this season. I don’t think they care.

The three potential replacements for McElhinney are all RFAs when their deals expire, giving the Leafs cost control for years to come no matter who they choose.

Only Kaskisuo is waiver exempt, so that small advantage goes to him. But he is currently on loan to the Chicago Wolves of the AHL, and doesn’t seem high up the list for the Leafs just yet.

The decision on who to put in net on the Leafs, and when, will be based on play on the ice and the teams’ belief in what they can do in the near future, not cap hit, money or waivers.

Curtis McElhinney

It doesn’t seem to matter how many times you repeat that McElhinney’s results on the Leafs are an unusual career high and unlikely to continue, many fans don’t hear it. But it is still true.

Last season, in 21 games played, McElhinney turned in a five-on-five Save Percentage of 92.7, with is half of one percentage point over his Expected Save Percentage. Expected is what a league average goalie would do given the same quality of shots faced.

If you add up all 102 games he’s played since the lockout, his Save Percentage is one percentage point below his Expected Save Percentage. So even including the 24 games he’s played with the Leafs with career-high results, he’s still a below average goalie over the last few years. If you go back farther, the number gets worse.

Right now, he’s getting a very good Save Percentage, still about .5 over Expected, and he’s doing it with a freakishly high High-Danger Save Percentage. Last year it was a freakishly high Medium Danger Save Percentage that got him the good-looking numbers.

As discussed by several commentors in the recap for his most recent game, an impressive win, the type of shots he faced in that game didn’t test his weaknesses, which are lateral movement and general athleticism as well as tracking pucks through screens.

His really good game, right when the competition for his job is the hottest it’s ever been, might be his competitive nature driving him on, or it might have been largely a question of luck. Or both. That’s the thing, usually it’s both.

One thing that McElhinney has in his favour is that he experienced at rarely playing. He’s a career backup, and he knows how to keep focused and to deliver the quality practice work that being a backup entails.

The next back-to-back is November 24 and 25, with the Capitals on tap in Toronto for the second game. McElhinney might be secure enough still to get that start after his most recent performance, but his position is not totally safe.

The Competition

The Leafs have three goalies in the AHL, and they are all in the top 12 by Save Percentage for goalies over 240 minutes played. (Stats are as of November 12.)

Sparks is first with 94.4% in over 500 minutes, and Kaskisuo is fifth with 92.9% in just under 350 minutes. Pickard has played the least, only 294 minutes, and he’s at 91.8% in 12th place. (All AHL stats are from AHL.com)

Kaskisuo, who we need to remember is the same age as Sparks, not a youngster as he is sometimes called, is doing well in Chicago, but seems to be the least likely to be called up this year.

Both Pickard and Sparks have faced some tough road games where the Marlies allowed them to get shelled hard, and both have succeeded at times. Pickard’s numbers are in line with his career AHL results, although he’s rarely played on a good AHL team. Sparks has never played anywhere but the Marlies, and his last two seasons have seen him top 92%, but his current pace seems a bit unsustainable.

In the NHL the comparison between the two is very different. (All NHL stats are from Corsica Hockey.)

Pickard has 3704 minutes of five-on-five play in the NHL and Sparks has 768. Pickard played for one of the worst teams in the NHL for most of that time, while Sparks got his 17 games while the Leafs were actively trying to lose.

Career NHL Results

Name Minutes SV% eSV% Difference
Name Minutes SV% eSV% Difference
Garret Sparks 768 89.9 92.1 -2.2
Calvin Pickard 3704 92.3 92.6 -0.3

Not only is the amount of data on Pickard enough to judge from with some confidence, his results are better. A league-average goalie, by the way, is a borderline starter, top-end backup, so average here is definitely what we’re looking for.

But it’s wrong to just sweep aside Sparks’ quality career AHL results. They are stellar, and the 17-game trial in the NHL was not ideal. Pickard has played 5 games for the Marlies, he won’t be harmed by more time there.

The Timing

Not only isn’t the choice obvious, it’s not obvious that it needs to be made now. But there are four pairs of back-to-backs in a fairly painful-looking December schedule. One is a mid-month road trip to Minnesota and Detroit, the other is the post-Christmas Arizona and Colorado pair of games.

Whatever happens with the next backup goalie start may decide a lot of players’ futures. If the Leafs decide to make a change, it may well be permanent. They don’t have the roster flexibility or the waiver flexibility to call up any goalie just for a mid-season tryout. Waiver rules, which are there to prevent teams from stockpiling NHL-capable players in the minors, sometimes have the opposite effect and induce teams to go with the devil they know, rather than risk a change they can’t easily undo.

The Leafs may be caught in that state of thinking the best risk is the one you don’t take. But eventually, with the competition for points in the Atlantic Division so fierce, the Leafs will need to decide if the devil they know really is good enough.