Earlier today, the Leafs called up Michael Hutchinson from the Marlies, and almost instantly the Growlers claimed a goalie off of waivers, making it all seem planned and long-term, not an emergency fill-in for an illness. We don’t have confirmation yet that a goalie is moving off the Growlers to the Marlies, but we expect it.
At Leafs practice, we first learned that Garret Sparks was not on the ice, and then that his stall in the Leafs locker room is gone, and Michael Hutchinson is set up next to Frederik Andersen in the backup’s spot.
What’s going on, and why the mystery and drama?
Plan with Garret Sparks is to have him work with goalie coaches Steve Briere and Jon Elkin on a daily basis. Rediscover his technique and his confidence.— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) April 5, 2019
If that’s the story, there was genuinely no good reason not to just say so back a few hours ago when Hutchinson’s recall was announced via press release. This all got turned into a period of speculation and gossip that didn’t need to happen. And no one should have required a leak to an insider to get this news out.
No one should be shocked that Garret Sparks, even sitting there as a backup, was not instilling confidence in anyone. But, if you’re swapping out a player, just do it.
Sparks was signed to a contract extension in early March, so as little as three weeks ago, he was the one and only Leafs backup goalie.
And now some direct reporting:
Garret Sparks needs to get his game back, says Babcock #leafs— Kevin McGran (@kevin_mcgran) April 5, 2019
Ten days brings us past the beginning of the playoffs which will begin Thursday in Boston.
We’ll update the post with the video of Babcock’s press scrum when it’s available or any official statement from the Maple Leafs.
The video, which you should listen to in full yourself to draw your own conclusions:
The basics of Babcock’s comments on the goaltending shuffle is that Sparks is going to go work with Steve Briere for 10 days. He calls it a process, and repeats that Hutchinson will be with the team for 10 days.
Ten days is the standard minimum for putting a player on IR. There is no real need for IR right now as there’s no roster limits, but that’s essentially what they’ve done.
Later, after some talk about Kadri and the playoffs, there’s another question about the timing of this move with Sparks. Babcock says that, “they did everything they could to help him get his game to where it needed to be, and now the team is way more important than the individual.” He also says “they went back to the well a number of times.”
This has to be a reference to the number of times Sparks was put in to start games even though his performance stayed within a fairly narrow band of league average down to replacement level or worse. The Leafs under Brendan Shanahan and Mike Babcock have not shown much patience for poorly performing goalies. This season was very different to most prior years in that respect. I find that phrase “went back to the well”, and the way Babcock says it, to be a lot less friendly-sounding than his other comments about the organization’s commitment to Sparks as the Calder Cup winner.
What remains unanswered is the question hanging over all of this, that can’t be answered right now. But what if he doesn’t find his game in 10 days of intensive work with the coaching staff? I can’t help but think that Michael Hutchinson has some input on that. If he even plays at all, that is. But this sounds like Sparks is being told to go find his game, and the “or else” is unsaid. Likely it doesn’t need to be said.
Why now? Well, I find it easy to understand after watching the last two starts Sparks made. He’s got problems with his positioning laterally, as in he’s not tight to the post when he should be. He’s got problems coming out of his crease and going very wide on extreme angles when facing a shot from a shallow angle to the goal line or coming out well beyond the blue paint to challenge shooters in heavy traffic. Once he’s wildly out of position, he gives up rebounds, and then he can’t get back to save the next shot. He’s got problems tracking the puck from right out there in the slot in front of him when there is no traffic as well.
There is a point at which you need to put down the save percentage numbers, and dig deeper, both into more robust statistics and by watching what he’s doing all the time, not just on goals against. None of that says this is a player ready to jump into a playoff game when needed. And even a coach who talks about process as much as Mike Babcock does is not going to watch those recent performances and then want to listen to someone tell him all-situations save percentages over the course of the season.
If the backup is going through a bad stretch, replace him. It should be that simple all of the time. Even in Toronto.