Before their final regular season game, the Maple Leafs have made a (very) late-season change at the backup goaltender spot.
The team recalled goaltender Michael Hutchinson from the AHL Marlies on Friday, meaning we have more than likely seen the last of contentious backup Garret Sparks this season.
The latter reportedly had his former locker stall emptied out and his name tag removed, and Sparks was not among the three goaltenders on the ice Friday, with Joseph Woll taking pucks alongside Frederik Andersen and Hutchinson.
We were given some more clarity surrounding Sparks’ status after practice:
Plan with Garret Sparks is to have him work with goalie coaches Steve Briere and Jon Elkin on a daily basis. Rediscover his technique and his confidence.
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) April 5, 2019
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) April 5, 2019
Hutchinson, who saw his AHL save percentage drop to .909 on Thursday, went 2-3-0 with a .914 Sv% in five appearances with the Maple Leafs after he was acquired from the Florida Panthers in December.
This situation is especially unique because Hutchinson now requires waivers if he were to be re-assigned to the AHL Marlies. Sparks isn’t eligible to play for the Marlies in the playoffs because he wasn’t on an AHL roster at the trade deadline, and would also require waivers to be sent down.
Considering the implications of leaving its AHL affiliate with no No. 1 goalie and a scarce crease for the upcoming playoff run, Toronto must have a real lack of confidence in Sparks as an insurance policy to Andersen — especially when you believe a .909 AHL netminder is a better option at this point.
For what it’s worth, head coach Mike Babcock — who knows the overreactive nature of the market far too well — is urging fans to take the wait-and-see approach.
"Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, let’s go through the process here. He won a Calder Cup for the organization last year, it’s important we treat him right and help him get his game to the level he should be at," he told reporters.
Babcock also elaborated on why the decision to make a switch didn’t come sooner.
"We believe in Sparky, so we went back to the well a number of times...we chose to do everything we could to help get his game where it needed to be, and now the team is way more important than any individual."
The team, at least publicly, appears to be giving Sparks the benefit of the doubt, but the 2018 AHL Goaltender of the Year has a lot of work to do to prove he can flip his dominant minor-league skillset into a replacement-level NHL one.
Sparks has been wildly inconsistent all season, posting an 8-9-1 record and a .902 save percentage playing behind one of the Eastern Conference’s top squads. The Maple Leafs boast a paltry .472 points percentage when Sparks earns a decision, but are a .672-percent team when Andersen decides the outcome.
The 25-year-old Sparks has been especially unreliable down the stretch, winning just once over his last eight appearances, allowing more than 3.25 goals per outing and boasting an .891 save percentage over that span.
Babs is right, though, we shouldn’t really overthink or put too much stake into any of this. Because if Toronto is forced to throw a No. 2 guy into the fire for any extended period of time against the Bruins, they’re screwed anyway, so this is kind of a wash.
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