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The Maple Leafs can sort out their backup goalie dilemma with this one neat trick

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The endless discussion on who should be the Maple Leafs backup has been turned into such a tangled problem, it might be time to slice through it.

Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Leafs have a surplus of backup goalies. They have a surplus of a lot of depth, but this excess is vexing because none of the three players fighting for that one backup chair are waiver exempt.

This makes the question of who should be the Leafs backup complicated by who might or might not clear waivers. Last season, Garret Sparks cleared at the end of training camp and became the starter on the Marlies. Shortly thereafter, Calvin Pickard, who had cleared waivers in Vegas, was acquired, joined him, and was the number two. Both played in the playoffs, but Sparks was the go-to starter. Both were very good all season, but Sparks sits atop the AHL rankings, and Pickard is a few slots lower.

Meanwhile in the NHL, Curtis McElhinney had the best results of any backup, but he played very few games. His results look good either by the tired old measure of all-situations save percentage or by more modern ways of assessing goaltending.

Sparks has passionate fans and gets the “he deserves a chance” sort of buzz someone always gets this time of year. The cottage industry of telling the Leafs who they should put on their roster rolls on. McElhinney is 35, has a history of very sub-par performance prior to joining the Leafs, and there’s a lot of questions around about how soon he’ll turn back into a pumpkin.

Pickard just gets ignored. If he’d been bad or even mediocre in the AHL or if he had consistently terrible NHL results in his past, this might make sense, but he has mixed NHL results that tally up no better or worse than McElhinney’s and considerably better than Sparks’ NHL record, which is very bad.

This is all frothing over right now because there is less than a week until the final roster is due, Sparks has been terrible in preseason and McElhinney has been good in exactly the exasperatingly, ugly-looking way he always is.

So what should the Leafs do? Let’s tell them how to organize their roster. The goal is two-fold: They need a backup who is good enough to win about half the time, and they should be preserving the asset value of all their players. They also need a Plan B backup if the Plan A goes south.

Sportsnet posted an article recently, suggesting the one neat trick to solve the Leafs backup goalie surplus was to waive Curtis McElhinney, and then have him standing by available to call up for up to 9 NHL games before he’d need waivers again as a Plan B to Sparks as Plan A.

They assume Sparks can’t clear waivers, should be placed in the backup spot now, and that McElhinney will clear. They don’t even mention Pickard, and the clever plan hangs directly on the assumption that McElhinney, who the Leafs got off the waiver wire, and who has put up two excellent seasons since, won’t be of interest to anyone out there. I am deeply skeptical of that in a league where GMs measure goalies by win-loss record and can’t remember much beyond last week.

I have a much more clever plan, but first, let’s have a reality check on what this issue is really all about.

Quiz time: who is the second-highest paid goalie on an NHL contract for the Toronto Maple Leafs? If you said Eamon McAdam, you’re right, and if you said who is that, I direct you to the Matt Martin trade.

All of the three goalies in contention to be the backup are paid less than McAdam’s max ELC rate. They’re all on one-year, one-way deals and they all need to pass waivers to be sent to the minors. Not one of them is a prospect or a future starter for the Leafs. If any one of them were tasked with a dramatically heavier load than Curtis McElhinney was last year, the Leafs would be in trouble.

Sparks sparkled in the minors. But at 25, four years younger than Andersen, if he suddenly sparkles in an NHL net well beyond mere tolerable backup level and massively beyond anything he’s done to date, he’ll be stuck behind a better starter. If Sparks is as great as his most passionate fans believe, the Leafs won’t be able to afford to re-sign him, and his asset value will be right back at zero again. One way or another, he’s not the next Leafs number one.

Whoever the backup is, he’ll be sitting there in the NHL watching Andersen play most of the games and filling out the stats on the clipboard. Seriously, that’s what the Leafs backup does the vast majority of the time; no wonder we worry so hard which of the three he is. Just pick the guy with the best handwriting and get on with it!

Sportsnet was on the right track with their scenario, but it wasn’t bold enough. My plan is more radical:

Waive them all, and let the hockey gods sort it out

I’m not kidding. There comes a point where all of this is just a distraction from the very real shortage in the Leafs system of a legitimate top goalie prospect, or any prospect at all younger than Sparks and not still in junior hockey. McAdam fits on age, but the he’ll likely play in Newfoundland this season or as the Marlies backup.

Speaking of the Marlies, Kasimir Kaskisuo is sitting right there, and if he can’t be a starter in the AHL, what’s he there for? It’s time to answer that question, so give him the net and find out. Worrying about it won’t tell you if he can cut it.

Mike Babcock brought us to this impasse because of his massive resistance to playing any goalie in a real NHL game to see if he can cut it. Pickard got one game last year, Sparks hasn’t played since the tank year. All we can do is guess about them.

Waive them all on the same day and take who’s left unclaimed and swap them around, in and out of some backup starts until there is actually some evidence to base a choice on.

This will never happen because it’s too radical for the timid NHL. But no one should be worrying about who wins this contest. If asset value of near minimum-salary backups and AHLers haunts your thoughts, remember that if they had any real value, one of them would have been traded already. You just don’t get to pretend the thing you have a surplus of is super valuable. Not when it isn’t actually hard to find elsewhere.

The Leafs aren’t in possession of a three rare jewels here. They’re trying to sell a bunch of daisies beside the meadow they picked them from.

The other thing the Leafs have, to use the accurate measure, is a metric ass load of cap space for this year and this year only. They can afford any goalie they like as insurance at the deadline or well before, provided he’s on a one-year deal. They could get Pekka Rinne if they wanted. Maybe he has neat handwriting.

This is the only year there is room for spending big on a backup. If the Leafs want to have someone good enough to be a genuine fill-in for Andersen if he’s hurt, they either have to find a young prospect on an ELC or they have to pay for it. James Reimer or Jonathan Bernier are actually the sorts of backups the Leafs need now that they’re at or near contending. But they can’t afford them anymore.

Maybe I’m just sick of this, and that’s why I’m leaning heavily to none of the above as my goalie choice. Any one of the above is likely fine. So waive Pickard first and then see. If he clears, he’s your Plan B or C. Or send Pickard and McElhinney down together if you think Sparks has to stay on the roster.

And if the Leafs suddenly need a Plan D or E, just trade one of those surplus third pairing defenders that are lined up for one roster spot and get Michael Hutchinson or Jimmy Howard or Anders Nilsson or any one of a number of other choices. Hell, maybe the Sharks believe in Antoine Bibeau, and the Leafs can get Aaron Dell from them.

There’s three more preseason games. Andersen will start two and McElhinney will start one, likely one of the last two which are back-to-back games.

Don’t be very surprised if the choice ends up being to stick with what hasn’t actually stopped working yet.