The Toronto Marlies playoff run has seen the Leafs’ top prospects’ offensive production dry up, which has proven a great problem for the Leafs. Forget about William Nylander’s ability to put up points, Nikita Soshnikov’s hockey IQ, or if Kasperi Kapanen will match Phil Kessel’s impact in the NHL – the Toronto Maple Leafs are in deep trouble and it’s in the core.
The Leafs goaltending depth is probably the weakest in the entire league. Last season, anointed starting goaltender Jonathan Bernier had an epic struggle to just concentrate. He started almost every game giving up soft goals and his struggles earned him a demotion to the AHL. The conditioning stint in the AHL didn’t help, as he lost his job to James Reimer.
Bernier never settled in until later in the season, when he played decently well. Amid the tire fire with Leafs goaltending, prospect Garret Sparks was putting together a fantastic season in the AHL. Backstopping the AHL- best Marlies to the playoffs, his stock as a potential NHL goaltender was rising dramatically. Things hit fever pitch as Sparks earned a shutout in his first big league start, for the first time in Leafs history. His performances diminished in quality, though, as his lack of experience was evident.
The general agreement was that Sparks needed to lead the Marlies on a deep Calder Cup run to earn enough experience to take the next step in his career. Now in the third round of the playoffs, the Marlies are down 3-1 in their series and goaltending has been the worst aspect of this team. Sparks’ puck tracking is simply not good enough, his rebound control very unpredictable and he just doesn’t look ready for big time hockey.
The Leafs’ other goaltending prospect, Antoine Bibeau, was fantastic for the Marlies last season. He was suffering a sophomore slump in his second pro year, though. It hasn’t been a huge cause for concern, as he played well enough to hold the fort in net while Sparks was up with the big club. Bibeau has gotten a look in the starting net in the playoffs as Sparks has faltered, but his play has shown is that he is wildly inconsistent. What he is consistent at, is allowing soft goals. Game 3 against the Hershey Bears summarized the Marlies goaltending, with both Bibeau and Sparks allowing four goals in the same game.
There was one common trait with the goaltenders in this organization. Every goaltender falls when playing under pressure. Whenever you need a top performance from one of them, they absolutely never deliver. When the season mattered, Bernier couldn’t make a save. Heck, he was even conceding goals from behind his red line. Sparks looked fantastic in his first start, but when the expectations rose, he looked absolutely exposed. Eventually, playing Sparks became a tank nation certainty. Kasimir Kaskisuo was signed out of college after being a standout at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, but you never know what to expect from an undrafted signing. Expectations should be very low. Sparks hasn’t delivered, Bibeau hasn’t delivered – but that’s not the worst part.
The worst part is that the Toronto Maple Leafs have no goaltending prospects other than Sparks, Bibeau and Kaskisuo. All these players are approaching their mid 20s and have not shown clear NHL ability or even been consistent at the AHL level.
Good teams have solid goaltending that is stabilized for years to come. The Washington Capitals have Braden Holtby firmly in their starting role, and a blue chip prospect in Ilya Samsonov. The Tampa Bay Lightning have Ben Bishop as their starter, Andrei Vasilevskiy as the goaltender of the future, and Kristers Gudlevskis as young depth with potential. The Pittsburgh Penguins have Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury as starting goaltenders. If you’ve noticed the pattern, good goaltending depth is synonymous with winning in the NHL. Unless you’re the Montreal Canadiens, of course.
Lou Lamoriello is definitely under intense pressure to strengthen the goaltending ranks for the Leafs. When he was the GM of the New Jersey Devils, he was blessed with the presence of Martin Brodeur. After Brodeur left the Devils, he moved swiftly to acquire an elite goaltender in Cory Schneider. The Devils are now set in net for years to come, with Scott Wedgewood still developing in the minor system for them. So, it’s clear that Lou doesn’t lack any foresight regarding the goaltending ranks. It doesn’t take a genius to know that Lou always has a plan, and there’s a trick up his sleeve to shore up the goaltending depth.
So, what move will he make?