TORONTO – No jobs were won, but a couple might have just been lost.
The member of the Toronto Maple Leafs who most benefited from Monday’s unsightly 5-1 pre-season home loss to the Montreal Canadiens was the one who remained glued to the bench, keeping his name far away from an ugly box score.
That would be Curtis McElhinney, who leapt to the front of the Leafs’ internal backup goaltender race without having to doff the ballcap and clipboard.
For McElhinney’s counterpart, the younger, more fiery Garret Sparks, was thrown to the wolves and emerged scathed.
Playing behind essentially an all-Marlies defence and just one big-league forward line — the Maple Leafs’ fourth unit of Andreas Johnsson, Par Lindholm and Kasperi Kapanen — Sparks found himself under fire early and often.
He faced 19 high-danger chances and 36 shots over 60 minutes of work, got run over by Byron Froese, and was charged with two turnovers himself. The hopeful backup and born battler actually made a series of big stops and settled down in a scoreless third period, but the damage had long been done.
“They were on top of me all night, but that’s something I have to learn to deal with at this level,” said the lanky Sparks, hindered enough by the physicality around his crease that he wondered aloud if he needed to get muscle up.
“I tried to hang in there and keep competing and keep battling and show that I wasn’t going to get walked over by anybody. I was going to make some saves.
“The guy that’s looking to get pulled isn’t the guy you want on your team.”
Of the five goals he surrendered on the first 23 shots, Sparks should want back at least three of them. That he was also charged with a pair of giveaways — including a brutal pass to the tape of Charles Hudon that resulted in an Artturi Lehkonen goal scored with Sparks splayed on his back — won’t help his case.
Coach Mike Babcock was in no mood to excuse his netminder’s effort on account of the slipshod play in front of him.
“You get paid to stop the puck, too. So…” said Babcock. Fill in the blank.
The NHL pre-season is an unfair testing ground, with its tiny sample size, mixed bag of talent, and flimsy facsimile of intensity.
Sparks wanted an Xavier Ouellet point-shot goal stricken from the record on account of goalie interference (“I still have to make that save,” he said, “but any time my foot’s getting pushed backwards and I’m getting spun a bit, that makes making saves a little more difficult”) and pointed out that it’s still exhibition and, hey, he’s still trying to recapture the groove that led him to Calder Cup glory in June.
Hearing a sarcastic “Let’s go, Marlies!” chant ring out through a quarter-full Scotiabank Arena in the lopsided contest’s waning moments should tell you all you need to know about the tone of this one.
Sparks was to blame, but he certainly wasn’t alone.
Seven Leafs hopefuls finished minus-2 or worse, defenceman Andreas Borgman topping all with a dash-4 performance he’ll want to forget. Borgman’s partner, the right-shot Justin Holl, also had a rough night and may face waivers in coming days.
“You had an opportunity to be important tonight, and it didn’t go for ya,” Babcock said of his group. “What I wanted to see, I didn’t see any of it. You’re hoping someone grabs hold of something and makes it so obvious, you don’t have any decisions to make. That’s what supposed to happen.”
“It was nothing,” the coach concluded, exasperated. “The puck just went in the net, and the game was over.”
Albeit in limited work, McElhinney has looked exactly the way he did in 2017-18, his best statistical season ever — rock steady. And Sparks just had himself a stinker in front of scouts from 17 NHL clubs.
The belief that Sparks, who backstopped GM Kyle Dubas’s farm club to a championship and has paid dues in the Leafs system for seven years, is the GM’s horse and reliable vet McElhinney is Babcock’s may be too simplistic.
Which side of the fence diehard fans fall on is almost a personality test: Are you an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it type or do you like to roll the dice?
“I think my relationship with Kyle Dubas is closer than I’ve ever had with any other member of management in this organization,” Sparks told us in the summer. “He’s somebody who gets me, gets what I’m about, gets the passion I have for what I do. But, ultimately, it’s his decision.”
It’s a tricky call when you consider that third-string goalies don’t fetch much of a haul on the open market, and losing the wrong backup on waivers could bite them.
So, how much credence does the Leafs brain trust place in a 5-1 pre-season clunker when debating which goalie to keep and which one to waive or trade?
“The beauty about it is, we don’t have to make one decision right now, so we’re not going to make it,” Babcock said. “We’ll keep watching and keep watching.”
Only three pre-season games remain, and with four goalies still in camp, there’s no guarantee Sparks gets another full 60-minute audition.
A week from now, all the watching will be focused on the waiver wire.
“It’s pre-season hockey. I’m trying to get my game back,” Sparks vowed.
“I’m going to show up at the rink tomorrow. I’ll be the first one there and get back to work.”