In case you missed it, the Vegas Golden Knights made a pretty interesting trade on Tuesday, sending David Clarkson’s contract and a fourth-round draft selection in 2020 to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for goaltender Garret Sparks.
Sparks, 26, has appeared in 37 games as an NHLer — all of which with Toronto. And while he did have a few shining moments during his tenure with the Leafs — the shutout in his NHL debut being one of them (he is the first goaltender in Leafs history to pull that off, for what it’s worth) — he didn’t exactly blow anyone away in many of those 37 appearances. With a career 3.09 GAA, .898 save percentage and 14-18-2 record, Sparks still has yet to find his footing as a consistent NHL netminder.
In the AHL, though, Sparks has been nothing short of fantastic. In 2017-18, he not only finished the season with a 1.79 GAA and .936 save percentage in 43 games for the Toronto Marlies, but he also guided them to the first Calder Cup title in franchise history. Not too shabby.
So, what can Golden Knights fans expect from Sparks? Is he the promising goaltender his AHL numbers indicate he could be? Or is he a career minor leaguer who will never quite stick in the NHL?
How did Leafs fans react when Sparks was traded?
I was on Twitter right as the trade happened and I think everybody was so caught up in the David Clarkson and cap aspect of the trade that nobody mentioned Sparks until at least half an hour later. There are two groups of hockey fans in Toronto that care about Sparks: Leafs fans and Marlies fans.
The Leafs fans were very excited about that aspect of the trade because they did not enjoy games when Sparks was on the ice. The tone I got from Leafs fans when he was in the net last season was much more nervous and almost bitter by the end. That’s how Leafs fans thought about Sparks.
Marlies fans, on the other hand, have a lot of nostalgia for Sparks. He essentially grew up with the Marlies and provided the fans who watch the AHL team with lots of great memories — whether they be massive diving saves or winning them a Calder Cup. They were very defensive of Sparks last season because they know that he would bounce back and get the job done.
I primarily cover the Marlies at PPP, so I talk with these fans all the time. It was a very difficult year for them.
Sparks has been excellent in the AHL, but seems to have a tough time translating that excellence to the NHL. What do you think is holding him back?
I wasn’t a fan of the Leafs choosing Sparks to be their backup last summer, so thank you for this question.
Sparks is an emotional goalie, which means he can fall out of position really often and force himself into having to make a brilliant save — or look like he tried really hard but the shot was too good — in order to stop a shot that would otherwise be easier for another goalie. He’s the polar opposite of Carey Price. The Leafs were a team that struggled to clear rebounds in front of the net two seasons ago, and they were bad at it last season too. Both of those things came onto each other and it created a really bad mix. Perhaps things will be better in Vegas?
Personally, Sparks is an AHL goalie. Shooters in the NHL are better and smarter and they expose mistakes faster and more efficiently than in the AHL. Sparks has a lot of flaws in his mechanics and it was very easy to be exploited by NHL shooters.
Sparks was in the running for Toronto’s backup role this summer. How were his chances of winning that job in training camp?
Sparks was given a leave of absence from the team in order to reset his focus for next season. I think Leafs fans were fairly reluctant to the idea that he was going to be the backup again. Michael Hutchinson was signed in June, and he’s a goalie I really like, but he was more likely to be the #3 than the #2. Things really changed when we heard of Neuvirth signing the PTO.
The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler mentioned in a tweet that Sparks was a very honest and outspoken voice in the locker room. Is that part of the reason he didn’t last in Toronto?
It was definitely the reason why he didn’t last among the fans. There was a moment when he complained about his teammates needing to play harder and better around him after a loss that was fully on him. That moment was the last straw for most of the fanbase.
Maple Leafs netminder Garret Sparks said the Leafs to get mad and show more emotion in their game going forward. pic.twitter.com/sjPl7CRVjx— TSN (@TSN_Sports) March 17, 2019
In the AHL, Sparks was fairly beloved for his outspokenness, but after he won the Calder Cup in 2018, he made it very clear in his end of season press conference that he won’t be returning to the Marlies next year. For the Marlies fans, it was a great showing of confidence, but it kind of indicated to me that he was a massive headache to the coaching and front office staff.
As for the players, it doesn’t look like he rubbed any of the players the wrong way, but losing definitely didn’t make the relationship good. He truly had some really bad nights as a Leaf.