The Toronto Maple Leafs are about to roll the dice on 22-year-old goaltender Garret Sparks, a move that signals both the fall of NHL goaltender Jonathan Bernier and the rise of a young prospect in Sparks who could be an intriguing part of Toronto's future.
Sparks was a long-shot to ever make it to the NHL when he was selected in the seventh round of the 2011 NHL Draft. He was the second-to-last goalie selected overall that year, and by 2014-15, he lost his job as the backup AHL goaltender in the Maple Leafs' organization and was demoted to the East Coast Hockey League.
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According to a SportsNet story from mid-November, Sparks re-committed to training over the summer. He gave up sweets and junk food and lost 25 pounds, and he also spent his free time as an administrator of a website for goalies, doling out advice to netminders of all levels from all over the world.
The results of that new commitment show on the ice for Sparks this season. The 22-year-old has a .938 save percentage and an 8-2-1 record with two shutouts in 11 games for the AHL Marlies. He was called up by the Maple Leafs on Sunday.
The story of the summer and early season is drastically different for Bernier. The 27-year-old had to go to an arbitration hearing before finalizing a two-year, $8.3 million deal with the Leafs just hours before an independent arbitrator was set to rule on a new contract for the goalie. The Leafs and Bernier were reportedly millions of dollars apart in early contract negotiations with Toronto low-balling an ambitious Bernier, but Bernier has done nothing this season to prove he deserves the high price he tried to demand over the summer.
Toronto attempted to force Bernier into the No. 1 goalie slot early in the season, handing him opportunity after opportunity to prove himself. Sometimes, it worked. Bernier was especially good in a shootout loss to the Sabres on Oct. 21, stopping 34 of 35 shots in the outing. He was terrible, however, in a 4-0 loss to the Red Wings on Oct. 9, allowing three goals on nine shots before he was yanked from the game.
It all went downhill for Bernier after he was placed on IR retroactive to Halloween with a lower-body injury. Alternate Toronto goaltender James Reimer was stellar in Bernier's absence, finally helping the Leafs play with some consistency to earn a handful of wins. When Bernier was able to return, he did nothing to earn the starting job back from Reimer, allowing a goal from center ice in a game against the Rangers and looking equally shaky in a 4-2 loss to the Capitals Saturday.
It all culminates into the current scenario, a nightmare for Bernier and a blessing for Sparks. The Leafs decided not to stick with Bernier while Reimer battles through an injury he suffered in practice last week. Instead, they're turning to Sparks for Monday's game against Edmonton rather than the man they're paying millions in Jonathan Bernier.
“We tried (with Bernier),” said Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock to the media Sunday. “The way I look at it, you get opportunities and you make the most of it. That’s what Reims (Reimer) did. Now another opportunity is here and Sparks … you gotta grab it. Is he ready? We’ll find out.”