Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Michael Hutchinson looks up ice while playing against the Vancouver Canucks during second period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Jan. 5, 2019.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

The Toronto Maple Leafs have banished their backup goaltender to hockey purgatory on the eve of their final regular-season game.

Garret Sparks’s inability to provide No. 1 goaltender Frederik Andersen the rest he needed this season, and his inability to give the Leafs a sufficient number of wins from the backup slot, hastened his departure on Friday.

The Sparks situation was no mere demotion. He was figuratively vaporized, as his name plate was removed from his stall in the dressing room at the Leafs’ practice arena and replaced with one for Michael Hutchinson, who was called up from the Toronto Marlies farm team to replace him.

“Yeah, getting the call-up was definitely unexpected,” said Hutchinson, who got the call to report to the Leafs on Thursday as he was preparing to play for the Marlies. "I’m a little excited to be a part of this, and want to help the team out any way I can.”

Officially, Sparks will spend the next 10 days working with Leafs goaltender coach Steve Briere and Marlies goaltending consultant Jon Elkin. Because he was not on the Marlies’ roster at any point late in the season, Sparks is not eligible to play in the AHL playoffs.

“Sparks has 10 days basically to work with Jon Elkin and Steve Briere to get his game back,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said. “We need him to get it back, he needs to get it back. So it’s real important as an organization we help him out and he helps himself. So that’s where that’s at.”

Hutchinson said all he was told was that he will dress for the Leafs’ final regular-season game on Saturday in Montreal against the Canadiens. Andersen is scheduled to start.

Open this photo in gallery:

Carolina Hurricanes left wing Warren Foegele (13) tries to control the puck in front of Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Garret Sparks (40) during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto on April 2, 2019.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Realistically, though, this is the end of the road for Sparks as a Maple Leaf. If he stays in the organization next season for the final year of his contract, it will most likely be with the Marlies.

Sparks sealed his fate, although most thought it would come after the NHL playoffs, with another poor outing on Tuesday. Sparks let in three bad goals in a 4-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, leaving him with an 8-9-1 record, .902 save percentage and 3.15 goals-against average for the season.

This was a tremendous disappointment for the organization, especially general manager Kyle Dubas, who is believed to have overruled Babcock on the matter of Sparks. Babcock wanted to stick with Curtis McElhinney as Andersen’s backup because he performed well in the role in the 2017-18 season.

However, Sparks was 10 years younger than McElhinney at 25, and was the AHL’s goaltender-of-the-year last season. The thinking was that Sparks was the better asset and could give Andersen more rest and offer better-quality starts. McElhinney was lost on waivers to the Hurricanes, where he played an important role in helping them make the playoffs.

Andersen made 66 starts last season and 66 in 2016-17. He was not at his best in last year’s seven-game playoff series loss to the Boston Bruins and fatigue was at least part of the reason.

The hope was to get Andersen’s starts down into the 50s this season, but Sparks never played well enough for that to happen. Andersen will make his 60th start on Saturday. And the eight wins Sparks had were not enough. Even three more wins would have put the Leafs into position to grab second place in the Atlantic Division away from the Bruins.

Clearly, Babcock did not feel comfortable going into the playoffs against the Bruins again without a backup he could trust in case something happens to Andersen. Hutchinson played adequately for the Leafs during a five-game stint in January when both Sparks and Andersen were injured and he was acquired in a trade with the Florida Panthers.

Open this photo in gallery:

Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Michael Hutchinson (30) makes a glove save against the Boston Bruins during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Jan.12, 2019.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Babcock refused to say Sparks is finished as a Maple Leaf, but his opinion became clear as he talked about the situation. He said the team “gave him every opportunity. So we went back to the well a number of times. Then when we didn’t get it worked out or it didn’t get where it needed to [be], we made this decision.”

There is no chance Sparks is going to suddenly “find his game” over 10 days of solo workouts with goaltending coaches. Then to be trusted enough to be dressed for a playoff game is a different matter entirely.

The importance of a good backup was emphasized in Friday’s practice when a deflected shot hit Andersen high on the arm. He went down hard and was in obvious pain, which threw a scare into the entire team. Fortunately for the Leafs, Andersen shook it off and stayed on the ice.

Andersen said the injury was not serious, although the shot “hit a little bit of sore spot.” William Nylander was the culprit, firing a high shot in practice, even if he can claim it was deflected.

“Yeah I saw,” Andersen said dryly when asked if he knew who took the shot. So the next question was if he expected some recompense from Nylander, such as dinner or perhaps a Rolex: “We’ll see.”

Elsewhere on the roster, Calle Rosen will play again on the third defensive pair as Jake Muzzin is still dealing with what is thought to be the flu. While Rosen now seems to be Babcock’s choice as the top fill-in, Muzzin is expected to be ready for the first game of the playoffs on Thursday.

Nazem Kadri said he missed Thursday’s 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning because of a minor injury that has been lingering for some time. He said it is not serious enough to threaten any playoff duty and the night off made him feel well enough to play in Montreal. Babcock, though, shrugged off the thought.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe