The Toronto Maple Leafs made a decision at the beginning of this season to make Garret Sparks their backup goaltender, and it appears as though that won’t change for now. The Maple Leafs have signed Sparks on a one-year extension that carries a salary of $750K. Sparks was set to become a restricted free agent with arbitration eligibility this summer after his current two-year $1.35MM contract expires.
Sparks, 25, was handed the full-time backup role when the Maple Leafs decided to put both Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard on waivers at the beginning of the season. Both goaltenders were claimed leaving the team bereft of any depth at the position, and just a Frederik Andersen injury away from seeing Sparks in net on a regular basis. While Andersen did deal with a minor injury at one point, the Maple Leafs starting goaltender has been brilliant and is now tied with Marc Andre-Fleury for the league lead in wins with 32. Sparks meanwhile has played in just 14 games and carries a .902 save percentage.
That number has upset many fans, who point to Michael Hutchinson or the other available goaltenders as better options. Hutchinson was acquired during the year to give them some more experience in the minor leagues, but actually performed better than Sparks in his short stint in the NHL.
Still, the organization obviously believes that Sparks can be a positive for the organization. It certainly doesn’t hurt that when Kyle Dubas was still GM of the Toronto Marlies last season, Sparks was named Goaltender of the Year en route to a Calder Cup championship. He had an incredible .936 save percentage on the year in the AHL, not the first time he has shown outstanding ability in the minor leagues.
There is something different about being a backup in the NHL though, and Sparks has yet to really find his groove as a goaltender who only plays once every few weeks. Head coach Mike Babcock is notorious for only giving his second goaltender a start on the back half of a back-to-back situation, games that are already more difficult for the team to win because of fatigue.
This extension keeps Sparks in the organization for another year, but also sets him up to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2020. At that point he could try to find another opportunity where he can fight for a starting role, one that he’s certainly not going to get in Toronto while Andersen remains at the top of his game. This also doesn’t preclude the Maple Leafs from going out and adding another backup option to battle in training camp, though Sparks would need to clear waivers to be sent to the minor leagues.
Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet was first to report the contract on Twitter.