TORONTO — They saw enough in Garret Sparks to give him another year, but cracks had already started to surface around the Toronto Maple Leafs backup by the time his contract extension was announced last month.
Unvarnished like usual, the 25-year-old pointed to them himself. He was a couple days removed from getting shelled for six goals on Long Island and not feeling particularly good about how things had gone during his first full NHL season.
“It’s been emotionally taxing, I won’t lie,” said Sparks. “It’s been a tough year.”
Where he found optimism that afternoon was in the notion he would eventually come out better for having survived the experience. Hard as it may be, it’s an approach he’ll need to double-down on after the Leafs made the unusual decision of removing him as their backup on the penultimate day of the regular season.
Sparks didn’t just lose his net at Friday’s practice, he lost his locker stall as well. Space is it a premium with expanded rosters. The Leafs elected to grant him some physical and mental space to rebuild his game while recalling veteran Michael Hutchinson to back up Frederik Andersen for Saturday’s regular-season finale in Montreal and Games 1 and 2 in Boston next week.
It’s both a bold move and a justified one.
Things had not improved since Sparks received a vote of confidence from management with the $750,000, one-year extension on March 5. He was in net for a pair of losses to the 31st-place Ottawa Senators down the stretch — taking full blame for the second one last Saturday — and posted an .895 save percentage over 11 appearances dating back to Dec. 29.
What it came down to, really, is the fact he couldn’t be trusted for mop-up duty in Round 1 should something happen to Andersen.
“What we tried to do because we believe in Sparky is give him every opportunity,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock told reporters Friday. “I mean you can look at it any way you want, the way we chose to do it is to do everything we could to help him get his game to where it needed to be. Now the team’s way more important than any individual and so you make those decisions.”
Make no mistake: It could be a significant one. You’ll hear some suggest that it won’t matter because the Leafs are doomed if they’re relying on anyone other than Andersen, but in the playoffs they might only need a solid 10-minute stretch from the backup to preserve a win or one quality start to provide the tipping point in a series.
Remember that third-stringer Jeff Zatkoff recorded one of the 16 wins the Pittsburgh Penguins needed to capture the Stanley Cup in 2016. They might not have advanced past the first round without it.
Hutchinson carries a little more NHL experience than Sparks — having appeared in 111 games, compared with 37 for him — and has a .910 save percentage with the AHL Marlies this season. He knows the drill here.
The Leafs acquired him from Florida for a fifth-round pick in late December as much-needed insurance after both Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard were lost on waivers at the end of training camp.
Kyle Dubas placed the veterans on the waiver wire at the same time in hopes of sneaking one through to serve as the No. 3 behind Sparks, but it didn’t work. That would have given the general manager more flexibility to manage the goaltending situation throughout the season.
Sparks, a seventh-round pick by Toronto in 2011, had unquestionably earned his opportunity to get a run of NHL games after posting dominant AHL numbers and winning the Calder Cup. The organization just didn’t have much of an in-season solution when he faltered, seeing its overall team save percentage fall from .917 last year to .909 through 81 games of this one.
Perhaps this chance to get private instruction from Marlies goalie coach Jon Elkin, not to mention some 1-on-1 work with the Leafs’ Steve Briere, will be a turning point. His .902 save percentage across 20 appearance this season was 48th league-wide — which suggests he was still a mid- to low-range NHL backup.
But his play sagged in the second half and Sparks seemed increasingly erratic while moving around his crease — especially when compared to his partner, Andersen. Those parallels weren’t lost on him, either.
“I’m just fortunate to have [Andersen] out there and get to learn from him and watch him on a daily basis, but at the same time it makes the comparison that much more challenging, right?” he said last month. “You have to live up to the greatness that he brings every day. As I’ve said, you can think about [goaltending] as there’s so many different positions within the position, but at the end of the day if you’re stopping the puck, you’re doing your job.
“That’s all anybody’s asking you to do.”
He didn’t make enough saves to hang on to his job. Not with so much on the line in Toronto this spring.