Who honestly thought Garret Sparks would be the Leafs’ backup? There were a handful of points you could make as to why it would be better for the 25-year-old to spend another season starting in the AHL with the Marlies. The most important one falls at the feet of Curtis McElhinney and how good of a season he had supporting Frederik Andersen last year.
But age was a factor in the discussion. Sparks is 25 while McElhinney is 35. At the same time, both would need waivers to be sent down to the minors, and the chances of Sparks clearing after the performance he had with the Marlies was slim. Perhaps that was the mentality in choosing Sparks over McElhinney.
According to Babcock, it was the history behind Sparks which played a big part in the the decision. But there is something else of importance to come out of his media scrum, and thankfully Jonas Siegel captured this one.
Mike Babcock on Sparks winning the backup job: “This camp wasn't what got it done. It was the history and knowing the guy and understanding that you got a long way to go. But a 25-year-old guy going in the right direction has a chance to get there.”— Jonas Siegel (@jonassiegel) October 1, 2018
And here’s a key difference between McElhinney and Sparks. The former knows what he is and what to expect every season. The occasional start may come here or there, but for the most part it’ll be back-to-backs and nights when Andersen looks terrible. Sparks, on the other hand, is a young guy who most likely has aspirations to be an NHL starter one day. Whether he works up to the dream or not is another conversation. The stats speak for themselves to an extent, but goaltenders are also voodoo.
Will Sparks be okay with playing one game this month? I say one because the Leafs have only a single back-to-back in October on the 6th and the 7th against the Ottawa Senators and Chicago Blackhawks respectively. The beginning of the season should be dedicated to ensuring Andersen has a good run of games to establish a rhythm, as he tends to buckle out of the gate.
A true backup mentality will have no problem with the inconsistent deployment. However, the young up-and-comer who wants to get reps in the NHL as much as possible to test whether they can handle the enhanced speed and skill may not. And considering Sparks’ performances in the preseason, getting a decent start under his belt may be good for him.
Will he get that right away? Probably not. Why? Because he’s the backup, and Babcock wants to win as many games as possible. Odds are, your starter is the one to do the job.
Babcock has proven time and time again to be a coach who values trust. If he trusts you can make a difference and get a win, you’ll get out there. Granted some decisions have muddled the perception there, but for the most part, he puts value in those who get results. Sparks won’t play more until he proves he can play, and those opportunities will be in short supply.
Think back to the Jhonas Enroth saga. Enroth got six starts with a .872 save percentage and management pulled the plug on him despite that all his starts were on the second-half of a back-to-back where the team played poorly. But no results, no spot, and that was the end for him.
We’ll never know who was directly behind this season’s move. The assumption, which makes sense, is Kyle Dubas got the win and put a stamp on the roster by moving to have Sparks remain with the main club. Fitting as Sparks is Dubas’s guy and he’s coming off being the AHL’s best goaltender and a Calder Cup Championship. Hopefully Sparks doesn’t prove anyone in management wrong, and the risk in making this decision doesn’t blow up their face.
And to make matters worse, there may not even be room to rectify anything if a mistake is made. The Carolina Hurricanes will be without Scott Darling with a hamstring injury per head coach Rod Brind’Amour.
Rod Brind'Amour on Scott Darling, who exited the game with a lower-body injury: "It’s a concern. I’m not 100 percent sure what it is yet. He tweaked something in the lower body."— Michael Smith (@MSmithCanes) September 30, 2018
They’ll need the help if it ends up being long-term, and McElhinney sure looks like a decent stop gap for the time being.
Don’t get me wrong. I would love nothing else than for Sparks to succeed with the Leafs. I also understand the mindset of the Leafs in wanting to play their backup more starts to reduce the strain on Andersen. But I worry whether Sparks can accept everything that comes with being an NHL backup considering obtaining points this season is as important as ever.