What To Do With The Leafs Goalie Situation
I'm sure most of you reading this may have already heard, but if you haven't, Garret Sparks made Leafs history last night by getting a shutout in his first NHL game against the Edmonton Oilers. While of course, there were some doubts as to if it actually happened, it was still a memorable night for Leafs Nation in what has been a miserable season thus far.
Which brings us to the current goaltending tandem that the Leafs currently have this season. When the Leafs opened up their schedule against the Canadiens, Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer were the goalies. It didn't seem that bad at first, as both goalies were given a fresh start and a new opportunity to prove their worth to the organization. After all, one just signed a two-year contract while the other may be heading for free agency.
As the season wore on, however, that view has changed drastically. It began with a poor preseason for Bernier, and continued with allowing the first shot he faced in his first few starts while made the highlight reels for all the wrong reasons. As a result, he is still searching for his first win of the season as the calendar turn to December and Mike Babcock's confidence in him is at an all time low.
Reimer, by contrast, is having the best start to his season in his career. His play resembles that of the one he demonstrated in his first season and the 2013 playoff run, and Babcock has rewarded him with more playing time. He helped put his team back in the win column (Which we know Babcock loves) and managed to make history while doing so. To top it off, he was even named one of the three stars of the week by NHL.com, which means he is playing "just OK."
With Sparks now entering the mix and playing as well as he did last night, Babcock has entrusted the former ECHL goalie the start to the next game against the Winnipeg Jets should Reimer not be ready to go. This brings forth a controversy that will be brought up time and time again throughout the rest of this season: which goalie is the odd man out?
Obviously, Reimer deserves every right to remain with the Leafs this year and will be rewarded with a big payday this summer or during the year. So now the two options are between Sparks and Bernier; the rookie vs. the struggling veteran.
To be fair, Bernier did show signs of promise in the past and has proven to be a good goalie when he is on his game. In his first full season with the Leafs, Bernier carried his team as far as he could while Reimer struggled. Had it not been for a late-season injury, the Leafs may have had a shot at the playoffs. Even last season, Bernier did play fairly well at the start and continued to prove his worth. Then 2015 happened, and this calendar year has not been very kind to him: only 6 wins in his last 40 starts, a save percentage under .900 and allowing nearly four goals per game.
Sparks, on the other hand, is still only a rookie with only one NHL game under his belt. Keep in mind, though, of the long and gruesome journey he had to endure just to get into this position. Drafted in the 7th round of the 2011 draft, Sparks posted uninspiring numbers in his OHL career with the Guelph Storm (with the exception of his last one) and was never really given an opportunity to showcase his talents. Despite getting an invite to the 2013 World Junior Hockey Champs, he was relegated to the third goalie position and his stock on the goalie depth charts for the Leafs was falling fast. Losing a spot to the upstart Christopher Gibson and young draft pick Antoine Bibeau, Sparks was relegated to the Orlando Solar Bears where careers are said to die.
But he pulled through in a big way by having a great season with the team, forcing the Leafs to trade away Gibson to the New York Islanders and give the 22-year-old some starts. Sparks has not disappointed management so far this year and has even won a star of the week in the AHL. This explains why he was called up earlier this week and why he is now in this position.
Both goalies have completely different stories as to how they got to this point, but only one can stay with the team. So, who?
If I were to take a guess, I believe Bernier only because they would want Sparks to have more playing time with the Marlies and continue to grow and develop. Remember, Reimer was intended to be yesterday's starter had it not been for the injury. While it is unfortunate that we won't be able to see Sparks play more this season with the big club, we are rest assured that the future in net is bright and have an idea as to who will be with the big team to start next season. This may change should Sparks continue to play well this year with the Leafs, but I digress.
So while Bernier will be able to stick with the big club for now, his time with the Leafs is now numbered. Sparks presence on the team, as well as his solid overall performance, has put Bernier on the hot seat to step up his play and get back into the win column or be demoted to either the press box or the Marlies, or traded before the either the new season or even year arrives.