It’s probably not something you thought you’d hear less than 25 games into the season, or at all this year: Garret Sparks will make his NHL debut for the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight.
Whether this is the right decision or not by Mike Babcock is a point of contention, but with James Reimer currently injured, Jonathan Bernier seemingly unable to stop a puck right now and Antoine Bibeau struggling for form, Babcock obviously felt Sparks was the only viable option at this stage.
A road less traveled
Sparks’ route to his first NHL opportunity has not exactly been a well trodden path or without trials and tribulations throughout his young professional career.
High expectations have never really been placed on the shoulders of the Illinois native.
Drafted in 2009, 160th overall by the Guelph Storm, Sparks would not make his OHL debut until September 2010, after which he started just four games by January 2011.
Playing second fiddle behind Brandon Foote, Sparks would make more starts in the second half of the season and did enough to catch the attention of those in Toronto.
Despite what you may have read in mainstream media since his call-up, Sparks was not a mid-round pick; he was selected with the Leafs last selection, 190th overall, and was the penultimate goaltender to be chosen in the 2011 draft.
His stock would rise, but not exponentially, in the following two seasons of junior before joining the Marlies in 2013.
Three starts at the end of the Marlies regular season in 2012-13 had seen Sparks record two wins and a shootout loss, as he showed some early promise at the professional level.
When presented with the full rigours of the American Hockey League, Sparks struggled early, allowing twelve goals on 79 shots through three games. With he and Christopher Gibson vying for time behind Drew MacIntyre, a six-week spell with the Orlando Solar Bears seemed to do the trick for Sparks’ confidence.
Returning back to Toronto on Boxing Day, Sparks recorded a win on his very next start on New Years Eve, turning aside 31 of 32 shots in Grand Rapids against the reigning Calder Cup Champions.
Drew MacIntyre almost back-stopped the Marlies to the championship that season, but with the tide of change beginning to sweep through Toronto, he would not be re-signed. Sparks should have been a lock for at least the number two spot, if not the man to carry the load the following year.
Through ignorance, perhaps arrogance or maybe a little of both, Sparks turned up for camp unfit and would sustain a groin injury — a persistent issue for him in 2014-15.
Christopher Gibson and Antoine Bibeau, especially the latter, grabbed the opportunity and both ran with the ball in what was a particularly tough first half of the season for the young netminders, with the Marlies having little to no offense and often getting heavily out-shot.
To his credit, the 22-year-old bounced back quickly from his demotion to the Solar Bears for the second straight season, recording his second professional shutout in his second game.
He would be the main reason Orlando made the post season, recording a 21-7-2-1 record and finishing with the best save percentage in the league, top three in goals against average, and second in shutouts with five.
A tough series loss to rivals Florida in the first round of the playoffs followed, but Sparks had proven himself worthy of another shot in Toronto, having also impressed in a two game call-up for the Marlies — he recorded a shutout before making 33 of 35 saves in a pair of victories against Adirondack in late December.
Playing in the 2015 ECHL All-Star game, we also got to witness the character of Garret Sparks. Often out-spoken and flamboyant, the goaltender decided to play air-guitar to “Sweet Child O Mine” when the song was played during an intermission. He didn’t hold back, giving it the whole Slash treatment with his stick to the amusement of those at the Amway Centre.
Sparks begin to fly
Last summer was always going to be a crucial time in Spark’s career. Heading into the last year of his ELC, something finally clicked. Finally acknowledging the Leafs were right in that he needed to step up his fitness levels by training and eating like a professional, he dropped a tonne of weight and came into camp in the best shape of his life.
He has seized the opportunity afforded to him when the Maple Leafs traded for Michael Grabner. Going back the other way was Christopher Gibson, which left Antoine Bibeau and Garret Sparks to fight it out for the Marlies number one spot and third behind Bernier and Reimer on the organizational depth chart.
If nothing else, this showed the young goaltender that the organization still had faith in him and his ability.
Antoine Bibeau began the season slightly better and deserved his call up early in November.
However, Bibeau’s nine-day stay with the Leafs resulted in no action, leaving him stale and out of form since, while in his absence Sparks was making hay with the Marlies. With a record of 7-0-1 since dropping two straight games in October, Sparks has two shutouts and a save percentage over .950 this month.
Already a recipient of the CCM/AHL player-of-the-week, he’s the first Toronto goaltender to win that award since Drew MacIntyre in March, 2013.
There’s little doubt that Sparks is a far better goaltender than when we first saw him between the pipes at Ricoh, and a lot of that is to do with goaltending coach Piero Greco, who by Sparks’ own admission has improved his game beyond recognition — squareness to the puck being just one huge improvement.
His debut at just 22 years of age will make Sparks the youngest Toronto goaltender since a certain James Reimer appeared on our radar and went on that incredible run in the second half of the 2010-11 season.
While I’m not suggesting anything like that will happen (besides that being a totally different situation), Sparks — unlike Bibeau before him — has been given the perfect opportunity to make his mark with no expectations whatsoever.
While the Leafs are not playing their best hockey of late, he’ll face an Edmonton team in the midst of a long road trip where they’ve blown hot and cold, including a 4-1 loss to Carolina, getting shutout in Washington before taking a shootout victory in Pittsburgh on Saturday.
In the same way the Toronto Marlies played a fantastic game this past weekend in front of rookie Ryan Massa, there’s every chance the Leafs will do the same for the affable Garret Sparks.