In many ways the countdown now begins for real.
As I mentioned yesterday, everyone from here on in was a unanimous selection for everyone's Top 25. The names from here on in are familiar; they are either well-known additions to the Maple Leafs organization, or are holdovers from last summer. We can start having informed opinions, and have a better debate about the people from here on in.
(Of course, some of the fun is looking at these lesser known guys).
And so, we kick off with a guy who's in the exact same place we found him a year ago. For the second year in a row, Garret Sparks sits in 18th spot on our countdown.
|Elmhurst, IL, USA
|188 cm / 6'2"
|93 kg / 205 lbs
|2011 round 7 #190 overall by Toronto Maple Leafs
Since being drafted in 2011, when he was the backup for the Guelph Storm, Sparks has seen year-over-year improvement each year in the OHL, grabbing the starting job in 2012, and becoming a top goalie in the OHL in 2013. Each year saw his GAA (admittedly a terrible stat for judging goalies) drop and his save percentage rise. The challenge would be how he handled the jump to the pros.
Toronto's goaltending situation was a bit unorthodox last season. Jonathan Bernier was brought in to replace Ben Scrivens, and challenge James Reimer for the starting role in the NHL. Veteran journeyman Drew McIntyre was the insurance policy #3, and would be the primary backstop for the Toronto Marlies in the AHL.
That left two young goalies, Sparks and free agent signee Christopher Gibson, to battle for the #4 spot on the depth chart. The Maple Leafs organization deserves credit for playing this situation perfectly, giving both of the young goaltenders time in the AHL as a backup (to get valuable time with their goalie coaching) and in the ECHL as the starter (to keep them playing regularly).
Injuries to Reimer and Bernier during the season would see McIntyre spend a little more time in the NHL than I think the team planned on, but that had the knock-on effect of both young goalies in the minors getting more time at that level. And Sparks, particularly in the second half of the season, started to seem quite comfortable being there, as Kyle Cicerella noted;
Improved a lot over the course of rookie season. Seems to be a better goalie the more he plays and more shots he sees. Will have a good chance this year for more time in net splitting duties with Chris Gibson but Gibson could steal number-1 spot away if Sparks has slow start. Given it only takes one injury to Reimer or Bernier for a needed call up I would have been more comfortable seeing the organization have someone like MacIntyre still as I don't think Sparks is NHL ready. Still very young and inexperienced.
Read more of Kyle's thoughts on Sparks here.
Top goalie in the organization beneath the NHL at this point. He needs to show he's ready to take over the starter's gig in the AHL. Unlikely to displace Bernier or Reimer anytime soon. Steve Burtch
Goalies are voodoo, but a .915 SV% in 21 games in the AHL strikes me as transitioning well from the OHL. Bower Power
The big thing that was working in Sparks' favor in last year's rankings was a couple of significantly high rankings that pushed him up above the first group of players in the countdown; 8th from SkinnyFish, 14th from Steve Burtch. Sparks' rankings clustered together in the lower rankings this time; 6 rankings are between 20 and 25, 3 more in between 11 and 15. The unanimity and the couple higher rankings were enough to separate Sparks from the rest of the group below him, but well behind the pack ahead.
If Sparks nails down the starting job for the Marlies next season, and builds on last season's promising performance, he should rightfully make another big move up this countdown. Until then, our trepidation at being able to project goalies with any sort of accuracy makes this a "prove it" ranking of sorts.