To say that the Toronto Maple Leafs have received excellent goaltending throughout the 2017-18 NHL season thus far would be a massive understatement.
Led by Frederik Andersen, the Leafs have boasted a brick wall in goal on a nightly basis, as he and backup Curtis McElhinney have combined to stifle the league’s toughest competition with incredible consistency. In fact, Andersen and McElhinney had combined to produce a sparkling .916 save percentage (SV%) heading into the All-Star weekend despite being shelled by a whopping 1723 shots on goal, the second-most in the league at that time.
However, and somewhat unfortunately, the performance of these two has overshadowed the dominance of other goaltenders within the Leafs’ organization. Sure, those competing at hockey’s highest level retain the most value in the organization, yet, the continued progression of Toronto’s developing netminders simply cannot be ignored.
In possession of two excellent goaltending prospects at the AHL-level, it is the Leafs’ sudden abundance of quality netminders which could, and perhaps should lead to the facilitation of a trade prior to the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 28, 2018. Desperate for greater defensive depth and general stability on the blue line, the team’s willingness to deal a promising goaltender could mark the difference between an early postseason exit and a determined playoff drive.
So, who are these goaltenders dominating the AHL and which of the two should Toronto look to trade?
Prosperity Between the Pipes
While the Leafs have been dominant this season, so too have the Toronto Marlies, who entered the AHL All-Star break atop the league standings with a commanding 32-11-1 record.
While the Marlies have scored by committee this campaign and boast terrific depth throughout the ice, it is in goal where the team’s true strength lays. Boasting both Garret Sparks and the recently acquired Calvin Pickard, excellent netminding has been critical to the team’s incredible success thus far.
In fact, just how impenetrable both Sparks and Pickard have been cannot be understated.
Garret Sparks: Ready to Ignite
At the age of 25-years, Sparks currently finds himself in his fifth full season with the Leafs’ organization.
During his tenure with the team, Sparks has been remarkably consistent and has seen his play improve each and every year. Now a veteran of 100 AHL contests, Sparks’ proven track record of success has firmly cemented him as not only a legitimate prospect but as a goaltender well deserving of a sustained NHL opportunity.
In fact, throughout his five-year AHL career to date, Sparks has never owned a SV% lower than .915, while his goals against average (GAA) has also remained well below 3.00. Yet, it is the 2017-18 season which has witnessed the strongest play of Sparks’ young career. As the AHL headed into its All-Star break, Sparks owned a sparkling .944 SV% and a baffling 1.60 GAA in 25 games played, two individual statistics which ranked as the best of any eligible goaltender.
Prepared for NHL action now more than ever before and with his value as a prospect at its peak, should the Leafs look to trade Sparks prior to the looming deadline?
Calvin Pickard: Playing the Waiting Game
When Pickard was nabbed by the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft, it appeared to cement the young netminder’s place at the NHL-level.
As one of the Golden Knights’ newest members, Pickard immediately caught the attention of Vegas’ passionate fan base, creating a contest in which followers could design his mask for the 2017-18 season. However, the contest would be for naught, as Pickard was traded to the Leafs in exchange for Tobias Lindberg and a draft pick before he could don his new helmet.
Despite this disappointment, Pickard has played incredibly inspired hockey for the Marlies following his return to the AHL.
Splitting ice time with Sparks, Pickard too has put forth incredible individual statistics, as the native of Moncton, New Brunswick had posted a 1.94 GAA and .928 SV% in 19 games played heading into the All-Star break. In those contests, Pickard had nabbed an astounding 14 wins against just five losses – a winning percentage which had contributed greatly to the Marlies’ immense success this season.
A veteran of 87 NHL games, it would appear as though Pickard is ready for a return to hockey’s highest level. However, it will surely require a trade out of Toronto for such to transpire, and especially so if Pickard wishes to secure consistent playing time.
Time to Trade a ‘Tendy?
Given the spectacular play of both Sparks and Pickard this season, now could be the optimal time for the Leafs to trade one of their developing yet dominant goaltenders.
In Sparks, the Leafs own an asset with 17 games of NHL experience under his belt including a highly memorable shutout in his debut. With one additional season remaining on his current contract and playing within a clogged depth chart, the best option for both Toronto and Sparks could be the concoction of a trade which would not only land the organization a substantial return but provide Sparks with a legitimate NHL opportunity elsewhere.
If the Leafs do not plan to provide Sparks with a valid shot at the NHL-level, why not trade him while his value is at its highest? In return, Toronto could very well net a bundle of picks or prospects. Alternately, Toronto could package Sparks to an interested team as a part of a larger deal in order to nab an upgrade for their ailing blue line.
Conversely, there is Pickard.
As a netminder clearly capable of battling stern competition on a nightly basis, Pickard would surely draw the interest of a number of teams if made available for trade. Sure, he cleared waivers before he was traded to Toronto, however, Pickard’s impressive AHL showing this season has undoubtedly inflated his value as an asset, and especially so in the eyes of teams in desperate need of experienced depth in the crease.
Currently skating in the final year of his contract, Pickard is poised to become an RFA at the end of the season and, as such, will be in search of a new deal. Although re-signing Pickard is a realistic option for the Leafs, doing so could prove to be much more difficult than expected considering he is eligible for contract arbitration.
Ideally, Toronto should look to obtain an asset in return for Pickard rather than run the risk of losing him for nothing.
The Final Call
Ultimately, Toronto owns two excellent goaltending prospects in Sparks and Pickard.
However, given the incredible success of both Andersen and McElhinney with the Leafs this season, the ascension of either prospect to the NHL-level appears highly unlikely. Further, with Andersen under contract through the 2020-21 season, the odds of Sparks or Pickard displacing the team’s current starter stand equally slim.
As such, the Leafs must work ferociously to trade one of Sparks or Pickard.
With the value of both arguably at an all-time high, Toronto would do well to trade a goaltender in order to improve the depth of their blue line, which has lacked consistency thus far in 2017-18. Although dealing one of Sparks or Pickard alone would not accomplish such, including one netminder as a part of a larger deal would surely allow the organization to acquire the much-needed defensive help it desires.
Yes, completing such a trade would strip the Leafs of depth in the goaltending department, however, it would provide others – namely Kasimir Kaskisuo – with an opportunity to prove themselves in roles of greater importance within the organization.