Guess who’s back?

After a two year absence from our list, Garret Sparks returns to our Top 25 Under 25 list thanks to another strong showing with the Toronto Marlies this season. The 24 year old goaltender looks destined to start the season in the AHL, but should get another NHL opportunity if he can continue his success in the minors. If one of Frederik Andersen or Curtis McElhinney is injured, Sparks could quickly play an important role on the 2017-2018 Maple Leafs.

With just 59 games played in the AHL over the past two seasons, we are left to evaluate his performance through a small sample. Whether backing up Antoine Bibeau, or simply struggling with injuries, we simply did not see enough of Sparks on a consistent basis. However, Sparks continues to thrive at this level when called upon, as he boasts an impressive .923 save percentage over the past two seasons.

Translating this success to the NHL level is his next challenge, as he struggled in his 17 NHL games throughout the 2015-2016 season. Only two goalies posted a lower save percentage that year, and one was McElhinney himself. We did not mind Sparks’ .893 save percentage while the Leafs were fighting for “first place” in the Auston Matthews lottery, but the Leafs will surely be looking for improvement when his next opportunity presents itself.

I was higher on Sparks than most, largely due to his proximity to the NHL and his success with the Marlies to date. Three of our voters did not rank him on their list, and just one voter put him inside their top 20. One of our writers, elseldo, explains why Sparks did not make their list:

I left Garrett Sparks off my list because at best he’s a short term backup for the Leafs. He had a weird season with the Marlies last year, but not being able to be the full time starter by now has hurt him for me. I chickened out and didn’t put any goalies on my list. - elseldo

Ranking goalies on this list feels like comparing apples to oranges at times. From my perspective, Sparks carries a better chance of becoming an NHL player than any other player in the 20-25 range. While Sparks is not an established NHL player and one of the older players on this list, it is worth pointing out that goalies follow a different development timeline.

NHL Goalies and Late Bloomers

Goalies tend to make their impact at a later age, and this likely hurts their rankings during the voting process:

At the time of their 24th birthday, goalies such as Corey Crawford, Cam Talbot, Cory Schneider, Ben Bishop, Thomas Greiss, Scott Darling, Antti Raanta, and Brian Elliott lacked any sort of sustained success at the NHL level. While Sparks is unlikely to become a Vezina Trophy finalist, there is still time for him to develop into a strong backup option or potential starter.

A Quick Scouting Report On Sparks

Sparks is an athletic 6’2 goalie with plenty of flexibility. His long legs can stretch out from post to post, and this ability to sprawl out can lead to plenty of impressive saves. While goalies such as Carey Price and Matt Murray are known for playing a noticeably calm and cool style, Sparks utilized a much different approach early on in his career.

With an all-out style, Sparks aggressively challenged shooters and played an exciting brand of hockey. However, he ended up over-committing at times, and plenty of leg injuries surfaced as a result. While his brief NHL stint did not go smoothly, it is worth pointing out that his playing style is now more calm and matured.

He may not ever remind us of Price or Murray in the crease, but Sparks is slowly starting to improve his positioning to get the most out of his 6’2 frame. We may not see as many highlight reel saves with this style, but boring goaltenders are often the best goaltenders.

One Last Look At Sparks In Action:

Sparks was the first goalie in Maple Leafs history to record a shutout in his debut. Frederik Andersen may look to be the starter for the foreseeable future, but contending teams usually carry a backup goalie who can steal you a game when needed. The Leafs cannot possibly count on 66 games from Frederik Andersen every season, and getting a solid save percentage our of their backup goalie goes a long way to locking up a playoff spot.

Where do you think Sparks should have placed in our T25U25 ranking? Have your say in the comments.