Goaltending depth was an issue this season for the Maple Leafs, and the concern still lingers as their American Hockey League club battles in the Calder Cup playoffs.
Garret Sparks was expected to take the reins for the Toronto Marlies in the AHL playoffs after strong play in the second half of the season. But an injury has temporarily derailed his opportunity and tested his durability yet again.
“You can perform as good as you want but if you’re not available to play in the net consistently for your team it’s hard to be a No. 1 goaltender,” Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe said on the eve of the post-season.
Sparks finished the regular season 21-9-0 with a 2.16 goals-against average and .922 save percentage in 31 games.
In four pro seasons the Elmhurst, Ill., native has put up numbers alongside the best in the minors, but he’s never played more than 38 games in a season as a professional.
“His numbers have been tremendous, injuries have gotten in the way for him,” Keefe said.
Sparks also served a team-implemented three-game suspension early in the season for breaking the organization’s social media policy.
“He’s matured a lot as a professional and is starting to figure out what it takes to be a No. 1 goaltender and a big part of that is being available,” said Keefe.
Antoine Bibeau would normally be next in line behind Sparks, but he had an inconsistent second half to the AHL season. That left Keefe to turn to Kasimir Kaskisuo, who was called up from the ECHL as some insurance in March before he got hot down the stretch.
Sparks went down in Game 2 of the best-of-five first-round matchup against the Albany Devils with an undisclosed injury. Kaskisuo got the nod over Bibeau for Game 3 on Wednesday, which the Marlies won 3-2 for a 2-1 series lead.
For the past three seasons Toronto has been grooming 23-year-old Sparks alongside 22-year-old Bibeau. It’s been an battle for positioning on Toronto’s goalie depth chart since 2014-15 for the drafted duo, with neither earning the title of No. 1 until Sparks secured the net in the back half of 2016-17.
Kaskisuo, 23, was signed as a free agent in the spring of 2016 after finishing his collegiate career at Minnesota-Duluth.
The Marlies were four games under .500 midway through January before going 27-10-2 to end the season. Keefe said Sparks’ play was a key part of the turnaround.
“The biggest thing that improved for me was the goaltending really solidified itself and allowed us to start to find our way on the right side of one-goal games,” said Keefe.
Bibeau had a fine start to the season, earning AHL goalie of the month in October, and had a chance to make the net his when Sparks got injured and missed most of December. But the Victoriaville, Que., native took a step back and when Sparks got healthy the top job was fair game.
Sparks also missed time in March with another injury, but the Marlies turned to Kaskisuo.
Bibeau hasn’t started a game since March 18, when he allowed seven goals on 33 shots in a loss. Despite beginning his season 6-1-1, he finished 13-14-6 with a 3.08 GAA and an .894 save percentage, his worst numbers in his three years with Toronto.
Kaskisuo stopped 27-of-29 shots in Game 3 and could start Game 4 Friday if Sparks isn’t ready to go.
“You want your goalie to keep it at two (goals against) or less and he did that, stayed calm and gave us a chance,” said Keefe post-game. “Real nice to see, not an easy situation for him to come in to but he dealt with it really well.”
Kaskisuo, from Vantaa, Finland, went 5-1-0 with a 1.94 GAA and .934 save percentage with the Marlies in late March and April after making 32 starts with the ECHL’s Orlando Solar Bears.
Sparks and Bibeau are restricted free agents at the end of the season while Kaskisuo has one year remaining on his contract.
Kyle Cicerella, The Canadian Press