Should Garret Sparks Be the Starting Goalie?

At the beginning of the season the Toronto Maple Leafs had two starting goalies to choose from, but after Jonathan Bernier’s disastrous early run of games it was obvious that James Reimer was the Leafs choice going forward. Now it’s after the trade deadline and Reimer is now with the San Jose Sharks and the question of who is the Leafs starting goalie has returned. With only seven games of NHL experience, Garret Sparks looks like the Maple Leafs’ best choice as the starting goalie.

The Garret Sparks Success Story

Garret Sparks has made the NHL, which is more than most 7th round draft picks can say. Sparks was picked 190th overall in the 7th round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft and the fact that he has been able to make the NHL is a testament to his determination. After the first and second round of the draft it becomes less and less likely that a player will have a long career in the NHL or even get to play a single game.

After being drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Sparks returned to the Guelph Storm for two seasons until he finally got a chance with the Toronto Marlies during the 2013-14 season. Unfortunately Sparks was sent down to the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL for the 2014-15 season. For those that are unaware, the ECHL essentially acts as the minor league for the AHL with the Orlando Solar Bears being tied to the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.

So for Sparks to be sent down to Orlando meant that his career was in jeopardy, since most players that are sent down to the ECHL don’t make it back up to the NHL. Sparks was an exception, winning 21 of his 36 starts with a .936 save percentage. That brought him to battling Antoine Bibeau for the starting role with the Marlies, and then playing the backup role with the Maple Leafs after Reimer got injured. In 7 games with the Maple Leafs, Sparks has won 3 games and has .916 save percentage and a 2.42 goals against average. Garret Sparks has literally worked his way up from the bottom to make it to the NHL and with that kind of determination it seems unlikely that he would be content in his role as backup goalie.

Just an interesting side note is that Sparks seems to be inspired by Leafs’ goaltenders of the past. His mask inspired by Curtis Joseph and his pads look like Trevor Kidd’s old pads.

The Competition

With James Reimer gone Garret Sparks’ only competition in net is Jonathan Bernier. To say that Bernier hasn’t played well this season is an understatement with Bernier finally getting his first regulation win of the season on December 19th against the Los Angeles Kings. Even after Bernier came back from his conditioning stint with the Toronto Marlies and started to get some wins, he still has had trouble in net and just doesn’t look good. In 27 games Bernier only has 7 wins. Now that can mostly be explained by the Maple Leafs’ terrible defensive play for most of the season, but when looking at the rest of his stats it doesn’t look good for Bernier. Bernier has a 3.12 goals against average and a .897 save percentage, which is pretty bad even when playing for the worst team in the league.

Jonathan Bernier
Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier (45) during the NHL game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Carolina Hurricanes at the PNC Arena.

There are two main criticisms of Bernier; the first being that he lets in too many early goals and too many bad goals. It seems like every game he is scored on in the first five minutes of the first period, and on one of the first few shots. The other criticism of Bernier is that he often lets in bad goals. Goalies can’t be expected to stop every shot that comes their way, but after watching puck after puck slip by him there comes a point that a goalie should be expected to stop certain shots.

While Bernier has looked shaky in his play this season, Sparks has transitioned well to the NHL level and has looked great in every game he’s played. With only 19 games left in the 2015-16 NHL season it would be in Toronto’s best interest to give Sparks the opportunity and chance to prove that he can be the Maple Leafs’ starting goalie.