In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll bring up an old and perhaps almost forgotten name who recently signed an ECHL contract – Garret Sparks. I’ll then look at general manager Kyle Dubas’ description of THE kind of player he wants on his team and suggest who he seems to be describing as he discusses “that player.”
Third, I’ll look at perhaps an under-the-radar signing of Jimmy Vesey and suggest why he might have been a valuable pickup. Finally, I’ll look at an aspect of the upcoming season that I’m excited about – learning more about the kind of a head coach Sheldon Keefe will be in his first full season with the team.
Item One: Garret Sparks Signs with Orlando Solar Bears
Talk about seeing someone you haven’t thought about in a long time. The Maple Leafs well-beaten – both on the ice and by the fans – back-up goalie Garret Sparks was in the news. It was reported that the ECHL’s Orlando Solar Bears had signed goaltender Garret Sparks to a contract for the 2020-21 season.
The 27-year-old goalie spent the 2019-20 season in the Vegas Golden Knights organization and played 26 games for the AHL’s Chicago Wolves with a goals-against average of 2.75 and a save percentage of .908 in those games. He played one game with the Golden Knights in a relief role and gave up two goals in 14 shots.
Sparks was chosen by the Maple Leafs during the seventh round (190th overall) of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Before he moved to the Golden Knights, Sparks played several seasons with the Toronto Marlies and the Maple Leafs. In total, he played in 37 games in net with the Maple Leafs. During his three NHL seasons as a backup, Sparks’ goals-against-average was 3.10 GAA and his save percentage of .897.
Perhaps Sparks signed with the Solar Bears as a last-gasp attempt to resurrect his career. It isn’t his first go-around with Orlando. He spent parts of three seasons with the Solar Bears from 2013 to 2016.
Item Two: Kyle Dubas Is Describing Who at the Coaches Open House?
As a career teacher before I became a hockey commentator, I’ve made lots of tests. When I saw this quotation from Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas, I thought I knew exactly who he was talking about. So, here’s a multiple-choice question. Is the answer (a) Mitch Marner, (b) Morgan Rielly, (c) John Tavares, or (d) Zach Hyman?
When Dubas was speaking at the Maple Leafs’ annual Coaches Open House last Saturday, he outlined how he believed Maple Leafs players should play and the qualities he believed they should exhibit when they did.
Dubas said, “When we talk about toughness with our group, it’s very simple the way that we define it. It’s if there’s a 50-50 puck, do you desperately want to win that puck every single time? And are you willing to be the first one on the puck? Are you willing to go to the difficult areas of the ice with and without the puck and be successful?”
Dubas added, “Are you willing to endure the physical duress that’s going to come on to you if we’re going to go as far as we want to go? And do that every single night through the regular season, but more importantly, in the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs, and be able to score the way you have to score in the playoffs and defend the way you have to defend in the playoffs, and that gets built over time.”
Who’s your pick of the Maple Leafs player who exhibits these qualities exactly as Dubas describes them?
Here’s my hint: he recently was named by Jonas Siegel of The Athletic as having the best contract on the Maple Leafs in terms of value for money. In my mind, when Dubas was describing the kind of player he values on the team, it’s Zach Hyman.
Item Three: Can Jimmy Vesey Have a Career Year?
Jimmy Vesey is a 27-year-old left-winger who scored nine goals and 11 assists in 64 games during the 2019-20 season. His career statistics show that in 304 NHL games played, he’s scored 59 goals and 51 assists for 110 points. He’s starting his fifth season in the NHL starting with the New York Rangers after finishing his collegiate career with Harvard University. He won the 2016 Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA’s top player.
During his first three NHL seasons, he scored at least 16 goals and 27 points. His best season was during the 2018-19 season when he hit career highs in assists, points, and tied his career-high in goals scored 17 goals (adding 18 assists for 35 points). Last season he played in Buffalo and, similar to the Sabres, he didn’t have the best season.
On Oct. 11, the Maple Leafs announced that they had signed Jimmy Vesey to a one-year contract for $900,000. Perhaps it was a bit of a flyer by Dubas and the organization, but it was a pretty cost-effective bet. Vesey might not even win a job on the Maple Leafs roster next season, but if he does, he might prove to be an underrated find.
Finishing his four-year collegiate career, few hockey people would have bet that he wasn’t going to become an NHL regular. His talent level seemed unquestioned. Where did that talent go?
If he can win a Maple Leafs’ job out of training camp, it might help him playing in the shadows of great forwards on a star-studded Maple Leafs’ roster. Could this be the season he reached his potential? Truthfully, there aren’t a lot of high expectations.
Still, on a high-octane offensive unit, there’s a chance he could chip in a few goals – he has the hands. Another 20-goal scorer would make him an extremely effective addition to the team. I remember during the 2018-19 season when reclaimed Tyler Ennis added value to the Maple Leafs on an NHL league minimum contract (at that time $650,000). Ennis had the final year of his contract bought out by the Minnesota Wild the season before.
No one’s expecting Vesey to score 60 points skating third-line or fourth-line minutes, but it isn’t impossible he could score if he got playing time with the top-six forwards. One has to think Vesey remains a skilled player with the size and, one would expect, a chip on his shoulder as he plays for a contract for the 2021-22 season.
I wouldn’t be surprised if he turned out to be a wise signing for the team.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
I’m looking forward to hockey returning for the 2020-21 season. In part, the changes the Maple Leafs made to the team are interesting. I noted Vesey earlier in this post, but there are others as well. However, as interesting as the players is how Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe might use them.
This will be Keefe’s first full season behind the bench. So far, we’ve learned he’s a creative, imaginative coach who likes to build team consensus. Unlike former head coach Mike Babcock, it’s more about the team. He seeks buy-in instead of subservience. Perhaps as important, he isn’t stubborn.
What we don’t know is if he can motivate success. With the plethora of leaders either on or coming to the team this season, will he share his authority? I’d be inclined to take advantage of whatever experience and leadership could be collected on the team.
We’ll learn about the kind of coach Keefe is when we see how he utilizes his staff and players during his first training camp. This will be the season – as goofy and irregular a “regular season” as it might be – to see how Keefe will coach.
I look forward to that.