Garret Sparks may be one of the more interesting, if not eccentric people in the Leafs organization. He’s a student of the game that will talk to you from the perspective of a professional goaltender or a beer league hero forward, he’s the face of an online movement of aspiring goaltenders and has one of the best social media presences in pro hockey during his bursts of activity, and he spends as much time worrying about warmup playlists as he does save percentages. Because of this, he’s built up a level of clout with younger hockey fans that most bubble prospects wouldn’t normally carry.
That’s all well and good and makes for plenty of entertainment. But at the same time, he’s also at a bit of a career crossroads. One of the oldest players on the list and in an active competition for a vital Leafs roster spot, Sparks find himself in a bit of a now-or-never situation.
|Age||24 (June 28, 1993)||Birthplace||Elmhurst, Illinois|
|Pos||Goaltender (LH)||Drafted||2011 (Rd 7, Pick 190)|
|Vitals||6’2, 198lbs||Acquired||Via Draft|
Originally a long shot to be much of anything when the Leafs selected him in 2011, Sparks’ career path since has been a captivating one, to say the least. He managed to make himself into a legitimate, workload-carrying starter in the OHL before his time was up there, and because of it, was named to Team USA’s 2013 World Junior team, where he won a gold medal without getting a moment of ice time. Upon going pro, he bounced between the AHL and ECHL to maximize his playing time, and proved himself capable in both leagues.
Toronto made a tough decision to go with Antoine Bibeau as their younger option in 2014/15, which meant a full season in the ECHL for Sparks. While some treat the league like a death sentence, he responded by clearly leading the league in save percentage, proving himself to be an elite starter at that level.
His next year was a bit of a whirlwind. Showing early signs of similar capability with the Marlies, Sparks earned himself a call-up with the Leafs while James Reiner and Jonathan Bernier struggled. He made just about the best possible first impression, becoming the first Leafs goalie to ever post a shutout in their NHL debut. He held his own for the next few games, but a groin injury – something that hasn’t been uncommon over the course of his pro career, set him back, causing him to miss time and then struggle upon returning. This was great for the Leafs as they dove to the bottom of the standings and ended up with Auston Matthews, but a disaster for him, as a lack of confidence in his condition contributed to Bibeau taking the starters job for the Marlies come playoff time.
|13||2006-07||Chicago Mission Bantam Minor AAA||T1EMBHL||15||1.2||0.915|
|14||2007-08||Chicago Mission Bantam Major AAA||T1EBHL||15||1.66||0.898|
|15||2008-09||Team Illinois U16||T1EHL U16||18||3.05||0.879|
|16||2009-10||Chicago Mission U18||T1EHL U18||27||1.98||0.907|
|20||Orlando Solar Bears||ECHL||10||2.82||0.916|
|21||Orlando Solar Bears||ECHL||36||2.34||0.936|
|22||2015-16||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||17||3.02||0.893|
|22||Orlando Solar Bears||ECHL||1||1||0.962|
This year didn’t quite go the same way, but came with its own adventures. Sparks missed significant time once again this year; a little bit due to competition, a little bit due to being a practice call-up for the Leafs, a little bit due to injury and a little bit due to his personality getting the better of him; the Marlies suspended in November for comments he made in an argument on a Facebook Group that he helped run. When it came to his play on the ice, though, he was once again one of the AHL’s top performers, and consistently so at that:
I’m not going to even begin to pretend that I know how to qualitatively evaluate a goaltender. Most don’t. As such, there will be no “eye test” opinions from me on any of the four goaltenders in this series. In lieu my own information, here’s what The Hockey News has to say about Sparks’ strengths and weaknesses:
ASSETS: Brings good size to the pro crease and uses it well, challenging shooters and standing tall in the net. Can play a hybrid style that maximizes his size. When in his butterfly, he covers a lot of territory with his long legs. Is also solid at rebound control and takes the initiative as a puck-handler.
FLAWS: Is not all that fluid or fast when he goes down to the ice, and he loses his balance a little too often. Gets caught out of position when scrambling and struggles to recover quickly. Needs to take fewer risks overall and tighten up his game in order to maximize his National Hockey League output.
The Upcoming Year
This year is a first in a pair of “put up or shut up” seasons for Sparks, where he’s been lined up against Curtis McElhinney for the Leafs’ backup goaltender spot.
Right now, you have to imagine that the veteran netminder has the inside edge, based on how he concluded his regular season. That could change based on how the year progresses, though, given McElhinney’s history of sub-optimal NHL seasons. With that in mind, Sparks will have to keep himself as sharp as he possibly can to capitalize on any moment of falter.
He’ll no doubt get the opportunity to, likely starting in goal for the Marlies once again this season with Kasimir Kaskisuo backing him up. But he’ll have to retain focus and health throughout to make sure he’s ready for that opportunity, no matter how soon or late it comes or doesn’t.
Sparks is a frustrating prospect to talk about in a long-term sense because he’s done so many things that make you think that he can make it in this league. He’s played long seasons, he had moments where he looked good in the NHL, and he’s been flat out dominant in the leagues below. In another situation, we might be talking about him as a potential draft steal waiting for his time to take the spotlight.
But the hurdles he has aren’t small ones. Being physically fit to play is key. Avoiding distraction is key. He hasn’t played much this preseason, but he does look to be in noticeably better shape; can he keep that up, and will that keep him from another lower-body injury to add to the list?
If the health is there and the commitment is there, Sparks should have no trouble becoming an NHL backup, or possibly even a 1B for a stretch of his career. If not, his future might be limited to being one of those AHL stars we talk about as a camp invite every September. We should have a good idea which is his road before his contract ends.
To see the other profiles in this year’s series, please reference the full list.---
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