Maple Leafs Need Better Backup Plan After Sparks Trade

For an NHL team, mistakes come in different magnitudes. For example, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas choosing to go with Garret Sparks as goalie Frederik Andersen’s backup last season? Relatively small potatoes. It still hurt them, though.

Sparks vs. McElhinney

By opting to go with Sparks over Curtis McElhinney and even Calvin Pickard, Dubas ultimately soiled the bed. Based on Sparks’ 8-9-1 record (3.15 goals-against average and .902 save percentage) and McElhinney’s sparkling 20-11-2 campaign with the Carolina Hurricanes (2.58 GAA, .912 save percentage, it might have even cost the Leafs home-ice advantage in the first round against the Boston Bruins.

Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL, Garret Sparks
Ex-Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Garret Sparks – (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

As has become an unfortunate tradition, that series obviously didn’t end well for the Maple Leafs. So, mistakes, even logical decisions to go with the prospect, who has upside, over the supposedly declining veteran made with the best of intentions, can have far-reaching consequences.

Revisiting the David Clarkson Deal

Imagine then the impact of a huge mistake to sign a guy like David “Wendel” Clarkson to a rich contract back in the day. When Dave Nonis, one of Dubas’ predecessors, initially signed Clarkson to his seven-year, $36.75 million deal, he was embarrassingly quoted as saying he wasn’t worried about the final years of the deal.

It was as if to admit there was a likelihood Clarkson, a 29-year-old forward with a single 40-point season to his name wouldn’t produce into the twilight of his career. In retrospect, it’s almost as if Nonis was realizing in real time something everyone else understood as being about as factual as the sky being blue. Kind of like how the deal would be his undoing.

David Clarkson, Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs forward David Clarkson – (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

So, as it happens, after two non-playoff seasons in which Clarkson scored 26 total points, the naysayers were proven right. A few weeks after Nonis fixed his mistake by trading Clarkson’s contract to the Blue Jackets’ for Nathan Horton’s, he was justifiably let go.

Of course, it’s inherently unlikely Dubas will be fired for his inability to recognize McElhinney’s worth to the Leafs as second-stringer or foresee him breaking out at age 35 as a spot starter. In any case, the gaffe is now more relevant than ever, especially in this context now that Dubas has re-acquired Clarkson’s contract for Sparks, a fourth-round pick and, most importantly, cap flexibility to presumably get Mitch Marner signed.

The Maple Leafs’ Suspect Depth in Net

The hope must have been that Sparks could develop into the Leafs’ starter of the future. That’s not going to happen now. So a decision must be made with regard to who will now back up Andersen instead. The Maple Leafs’ goaltending depth isn’t all that impressive, with Professional Tryout Michal Neuvirth arguably ranking as the second-best goalie in the organization, and he’s technically not even signed yet.

Michal Neuvirth – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Recent draft picks Ian Scott (2017) and Joseph Woll (2016) may have upside, but they’re realistically a few years away from being given a shot. As a result, barring a move, it’s going to be between Neuvirth and Michael Hutchinson, who has got one year under contract and may be picked up a la McElhinney if he’s waived next training camp. Fool Dubas once, chalk it up as an innocent, albeit unfortunate mistake. Fool him twice, and he’ll have a lot more explaining to do.  That’s why Hutchinson is the obvious choice.

Hutchinson vs. Neuvirth

Hutchinson did provide some relief for Andersen last season, going 2-3 with a 2.64 GAA and .914 save percentage. In contrast, some may say Neuvirth has the longer NHL track record and they’d be right. All due respect to Neuvirth, that’s just a polite way of saying a goalie who’s attending training camp thanks to a PTO is old and potentially over the hill.

In contrast, Hutchinson is just 29 to Neuvirth’s 31 years of age. Contrary to popular belief, whereas Neuvirth has been a starter before, Hutchinson did split goaltending duties for the Winnipeg Jets with Ondrej Pavelec. Once Connor Hellebuyck came around, he even served as his backup, albeit with diminishing returns in the statistical department.

Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Michael Hutchinson
Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Michael Hutchinson – (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

In Neuvirth, the Leafs have a goalie who may be proven over his career but not in the immediate past. During an injury-plagued 2018-19 with the Philadelphia Flyers, Neuvirth played just seven games. Hence the PTO.

However, Neuvirth’s career injury history is long and extends past last season, with the implication being that he could realistically get injured again, in which case the role of Andersen’s backup may end up getting filled by Hutchinson one way or another. That is, if the Maple Leafs don’t make the mistake of exposing him to waivers first.