Kyle Dubas puts stamp on Maple Leafs roster with latest cuts

HC at Noon discussion on the news that Garret Sparks has won the Maple Leafs back-up goalie job, and have placed Curtis McElhinney, Calvin Pickard on waivers.

TORONTO – Restless with the uncertainty, the goalie had difficulty even sleeping in until 7 a.m. Monday morning.

He was antsy to get to the practice facility as quickly as possible and check the lineup board.

So, naturally, it was a rush to see that, yes, his name was on it: Garret Sparks, member of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ opening night roster.

“There were a couple times I didn’t think it would happen. That’s what makes this even sweeter,” Sparks said after the Leafs’ first practice as a slimmed-down 23-man group. “Getting to play the rebound game with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner — it’s what you work for your whole life.”

Sparks allowed five goals in his only full pre-season game, yet his stellar AHL performance in 2017-18, in which he won every trophy he was eligible for, earned the 25-year-old the right to back up Frederik Andersen over Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard, both of whom have more NHL experience and were placed on waivers Monday.

There’s no guarantee they clear.

“Going through the competition, it was fierce in every way without being destructive in any way. It was all four goalies competing hard and supporting each other,” Sparks said. “I feel like I’m a better goalie and a better person for the competition I just went through.”

By picking Sparks over McElhinney, who had earned coach Mike Babcock’s trust, and fourth-pair defencemen Martin Marincin and Justin Holl over Connor Carrick, new GM Kyle Dubas has stamped his signature on the roster.

All three of those players, now on the happy side of the bubble, drank from the Calder Cup with Dubas just a few months ago and were integral to the city’s first professional hockey championship in half a century.

“The GM with them every day is the GM here,” Babcock said.

“Sparks has been in the organization for a long time and built himself a history. His camp wasn’t what got it done. It was the history and knowing the guy.

“[He’s] a 25-year-old guy going in the right direction and has a chance to get there.”

Play the Sportsnet Fantasy Hockey Pool for your chance to win the ultimate grand prize: an all-new 2019 RAM 1500!

With Andersen expected, again, to contend for most minutes played among all NHL goaltenders, Sparks has had Oct. 7 circled on his calendar since the schedule was released. That’s the date of the Leafs’ first back-to-back — in Chicago.

Sparks grew up in suburban Illinois and returned there in the summer to face shots fired by the likes of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, but he has yet to step foot on the United Centre ice.

Sparks allowed himself to reflect on what’s been a wild journey to make the cut. As recently as 2014-15, both he and the late-blooming Holl, 26, were toiling away in the ECHL.

Babcock said “mere mortals” need years of seasoning to reach the grand stage. Their promotion is a testament to what relentless dream-chasing can do, and should be dangled as a carrot for Marlies like Carl Grundstrom, Andreas Borgman and Jeremy Bracco.

Shine in the farm system, and you will be rewarded.

Sparks thought about his healthy-scratch days as third-string goaltender in junior, posting an .890 save percentage for the Guelph Storm, a season with the same prolonged stretches between game action that he’s in for now. It’s a unique role McElhinney excelled at last winter.

“You just have to put that effort in in practice and make practice your game,” Sparks learned. “There’s no such thing as an unimportant shot.”

Sparks considered his mini audition for the bad-on-purpose Leafs in 2015-16, when he went 6-9-1 under severely different circumstances.

“It was quite a ride for 17 games at 22 years old,” he said, “but I’d like to be a much more polished and controlled version of myself here at 25.”

And the goalie also flew back to being a little kid in Elmhurst, Ill., when his father presented him with an envelope and a choice.

“He gave me an ultimatum at seven years old when the season ticket renewal form came in. He said, ‘Do you want to play hockey or do you want to watch hockey?’” Sparks recalled.

“I chose playing hockey — or else I’d still be a Hawks season ticket holder, probably.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.