From just browsing Toronto Maple Leafs related tweets on Twitter the last few weeks, and from personally hearing some fans talk, it seems Toronto’s backup goalie Garret Sparks has faced a lot of unwarranted criticism from fans of the team that wears blue and white.
It seems the decision to make Sparks the backup goaltender and to put Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard on waivers was an unpopular one in Leafs' nation, but I think Leafs fans are missing the bigger picture here, and are deciding to ignore the sound logic this decision was based on in favour of nostalgia.
Personally, I think Sparks is simply facing this criticism because he is not Curtis McElhinney, a goalie who was so popular with the team and with fans the last two seasons, and that’s unfair.
McElhinney’s positive attitude endeared him to Leafs fans. He also had a decent record as the team’s backup, which helped, as he won six out of the 14 games he played, in his first season with the Leafs, and followed that up with an 11-5-1 record with the team the following season. But, as I noted in my annual predictions column, Sparks is 10 years younger than McElhinney.
The Leafs had to make a decision, and were faced with the possibility of losing at least one goalie on waivers no matter what, so they had to go with the younger asset to protect. For those who are unaware, the Leafs lost both Pickard and McElhinney on waivers to the Flyers and Hurricanes.
Unfortunately, because McElhinney was claimed and Sparks won the job, a lot of ire was directed at Sparks unfairly.
Sparks had a great season in the AHL last year, eventually leading the Marlies to a Calder Cup victory. He posted a 1.79 goals-against average and .936 save percentage, and had six shutouts in 43 regular season games. Ok, so some people will point out the AHL is a whole different league than the NHL. Ok, so let’s let his stats this year do the talking. He has won four of the first five games he has played as the Leafs’ backup, and has a .924 save percentage. Not to mention, he is coming off a shutout performance against the Philadelphia Flyers.
The AHL is a league specifically for development, getting players ready to play in the NHL. Leafs fans, who I might add were embracing the rebuild that brought the team Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and William Nylander among others, should have known someday Toronto would promote their young goalie, and that day just happened to take place this season.
Let’s also look at his inexperience through a positive lens, as he played in the NHL only previously in the 2015/2016 season. If he has won four of five with a record like that, as a goalie still learning the ropes in the NHL, his numbers should improve as he gets more experience, and his best is still yet to come. If you give Sparks a chance, as he works to get better every game, he could very well impress you.
Leaf fans, I think we should be embracing Sparks as our present and future backup goaltender.
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Is a reporter for The Standard Newspaper, so if you see him, feel free to say hello. You can follow Dan on Twitter at @dancearnsy