By Mark McKelvie and Shaan Mohamed
Toronto Maple Leafs fans may be talking about the goaltending battle set to take place between James Reimer and newcomer Jonathan Bernier, but rookie goaltender Garret Sparks shouldn’t be forgotten.
Sparks, a seventh round draft pick of the Leafs in the 2011 NHL entry draft, will be entering his first full season in the pros in 2013-14 after spending the past three seasons with the OHL’s Guelph Storm.
While Reimer has been questioned as a number one goaltender, and Bernier’s presence puts Reimer’s job in doubt, Sparks could be the future, according to former coach Matt Smith.
“He has a big body, long limbs and it works to his advantage,” said Smith. “He is probably similar to a Mike Smith style of goaltender who plays deep in his net and has a big body.”
Last season, Sparks helped the Storm to the playoffs on the strength of 36 wins in 60 appearances. Also a part of the Team USA squad that captured the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in Russia last January, Sparks could very well be the future.
HockeyProspect, which is an independent scouting service with scouts throughout North America, compiles game reports and rankings on players in a year-end catalogue ahead of the annual NHL Entry Draft. They ranked Sparks prior to his draft year.
Last season Kevin Thacker, a scout for HockeyProspect.com, saw Sparks play more than a dozen times and said he stood out immediately to the scout.
“He has great size, is very athletic, strong down low and has good lateral movement,” said Thacker. “He has an effective glove hand and he constantly battles for loose pucks.”
While he may not be NHL ready quite yet, Sparks is going to need to once again step his game up in order to battle for the top spot with Toronto Marlies, the American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“He is going to learn how to be a pro and I thought he matured a lot last season. He really learned what it took to play at the next level,” said Smith. “The biggest thing is for him to be consistent day in and day out, and putting in all the work to improve his game overall.”
With both Reimer and Bernier in the mix with the big club there is no rush for Sparks to step up, allowing him plenty of time to grow in the AHL.
But Smith has no doubts Sparks has the tools to make it in the NHL.
“Hopefully his future is in the National Hockey League because he has the ability to get there as far as skill level goes and as far as his build goes.”