TORONTO – The beauty, Mike Babcock says, is the Toronto Maple Leafs don’t have to make any decisions on their backup goaltending right now.
The truth is they probably don’t have to make a final determination for another month or more.
While the battle for the backup position has appeared to get more complicated after a couple rough exhibition outings from reigning AHL goalie of the year Garret Sparks, the Leafs might still choose to protect that asset and extend the runway on a decision between him and veteran Curtis McElhinney into the regular season.
That could be accomplished by passing McElhinney through waivers before the Oct. 3 opener – a move that would allow him to be freely transferred back and forth between the AHL and NHL afterwards.
It’s an especially likely manoeuvre if the Leafs believe Sparks would be a target for a waiver claim late in training camp. That certainly seems like a possibility. He’s a full 10 years younger than McElhinney and posted a .936 save percentage in the AHL last season while helping the Marlies win the Calder Cup.
Another organization might look at those credentials as an indicator of upside.
Let’s consult the NHL/NHLPA collective bargaining agreement to work through what this scenario might look like. The relevant section on waivers can be found on page 71:
13.2 The “Playing Season Waiver Period” shall begin on the twelfth (12th) day prior to the start of the Regular Season and end on the day following the last day of a Club’s Playing Season. Subject to the provisions of this Article, the rights to the services of a Player may be Loaned to a club of another league, upon fulfillment of the following conditions, except when elsewhere expressly prohibited:
(a) Regular Waivers were requested and cleared during the Playing Season Waiver Period; and
(b) the Player has not played in ten (10) or more NHL Games cumulative since Regular Waivers on him were last cleared, and more than thirty (30) days cumulative on an NHL roster have not passed since Regular Waivers on him were last cleared.
What this tells us is that McElhinney could play as many as nine games for the Leafs after clearing waivers without having to pass through them again while being moved back and forth from the AHL. The cumulative days on an NHL roster isn’t as much of a concern in this case since the team’s affiliate is based a couple kilometres away in the same city.
As a result, McElhinney could theoretically practise and play with the Marlies to stay sharp and then be called up the same day the Leafs want or need him to make a start. Sparks would serve as Frederik Andersen’s backup in the interim.
It would buy more time for management and the coaching staff to make an evaluation on Sparks at the NHL level. That seems like a sensible approach given the 25-year-old’s track record. It’s certainly more sensible than making any firm conclusions after watching him allow eight goals on 48 shots in his last 90 minutes 50 seconds of pre-season play.
Babcock wasn’t making any excuses for Sparks after Monday’s 5-1 loss to Montreal in a disjointed game featuring largely AHL talent, saying: “Yeah, but you get paid to stop the puck too, right?”
If the choice was his alone, you’d have to think he would go with the proven commodity in McElhinney – a business-first backup with 186 games of NHL experience on his resume, built over 10 seasons with six teams. He also posted a career-best .934 save percentage while winning 11 of 17 starts for the Leafs last season.
However, general manager Kyle Dubas is tasked with considering the big picture here. The only bet he would have to make to execute the plan laid out above is that McElhinney would pass through the waiver wire unclaimed – a reasonable assumption given his age and the fact there aren’t a plethora of goalie injuries this early in the season.
(The Florida Panthers got veteran goalie Michael Hutchinson through waivers last week).
Even if Dubas wanted to pursue a trade involving Sparks to recoup an asset, this scenario would allow him to operate free of any external pressures.
Further, the Leafs only have one back-to-back on their schedule in the first month of the season – Oct. 5 at home against Ottawa, and Oct. 6 at Chicago. Given Babcock’s previous deployment of Andersen, the demand for a backup shouldn’t be too high in the early going.
The smart money should be placed on the Leafs choosing to look past Sparks’ struggles in training camp and resist making any rash decisions. There’s an opportunity here to do that.
“[Sparks is] a big guy, he’s a young guy, and yet Mac was the backup goalie of the year last year,” Babcock said recently. “I mean his numbers speak for [themselves] and he’s a real professional. A lot of these decisions you make, they’re hard decisions, but you’ve got to make them.
“But when time is on your side why would you get in a rush?”