April 9, 2015
TORONTO— As the Toronto Maple Leafs move forward with a rebuild, one position that management already views as being in good shape is the one between the pipes.
Toronto currently has three, young goaltenders— Christopher Gibson, Antoine Bibeau and Garret Sparks— who have all had some form of success this season in the minors, which has left Leafs assistant general manager Kyle Dubas optimistic about the club’s future at goal.
“We’ve got three goalies that are all essentially the same age. To be in that position as an organization is great,” said Dubas.
“All three have a bright future in net, we’re spoiled there.”
Gibson, 22, and 20-year-old Bibeau have guarded the Marlies net in the American Hockey League all season, while 21-year-old Sparks has spent the majority of the year with the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL.
Marlies head coach Gord Dineen used the first half of the season rotating his two goalies, never labelling either as the club’s No. 1. Both responded with performances at times that showed they could handle more responsibility.
Bibeau’s early highlight came in a 33-save 1-0 shootout victory against the Rockford IceHogs four games into the season. Gibson, meanwhile, had a 52-save outing in a 3-2 win against the Utica Comets in January.
On many nights early in the season— as Toronto averaged less than two goals a game for the first 20 contests— the Marlies came away with points only because of their goaltending.
Their statistics, including save percentage, were nearly identical right up through February.
Recently, however, the sophomore has outplayed the rookie and was rewarded by Dineen with nine straight starts in March— prior to, neither goalie had been given more than two starts.
“Gibson, every night, has taken the ball and run with it,” said Dubas.
Gibson, from Karkkila, Finland, has elevated his game as the season has gone on while Bibeau has tailed off slowly. But that doesn’t concern management considering the Victoriaville, Que. native is experiencing pro hockey for the first time and bumps in the road were expected.
“Maybe Antoine hasn’t had the second half he wanted but it’s not a detriment to us,” said Dubas. “You go from playing junior to pro, it’s a lot different.”
While it would be easy to assume the organization has higher hopes for the two goalies currently on the Marlies roster, that isn’t exactly the case. If it wasn’t for a groin injury suffered by Sparks in training camp, the situation could have been very different for the 2014-15 season.
“They see Garret in Orlando and think he has to be the number three, but he’s only there because he was injured at the beginning of the year and the other two really took off,” said Dubas.
“Based on how Antoine and Chris played we couldn’t take the net away from them.”
Sparks has carried the Solar Bears at times and is 20-7-3 in 35 games while averaging 37.1 shots against per 60 minutes. He has a 2.42 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage, which leads the entire league by a large margin.
“(Garrett’s) been outstanding the entire year with them,” said Dubas.
Sparks, from Elmhurst, Ill., also stopped 56-of-58 shots in his only two starts with Toronto when he was called up in late December before another injury struck— eventually leading to him being back with Orlando.
Gibson, originally drafted by the L.A. Kings 49th overall in the 2011 NHL Draft before signing with Toronto as a free agent, is 21-17-3 with a 2.50 goals-against average and .918 save percentage in 42 games.
Bibeau, selected by Toronto 172nd in 2013, has gone 12-10-5 with a 2.80 goals-against average and .911 save percentage in 28 contests.
Toronto has James Reimer locked up for one more season, but will have to decide this summer what to do with restricted free agent Jonathan Bernier.
Gibson and Sparks, who Toronto picked 190th in 2011, have one more year on their contracts before hitting RFA status while Bibeau is in the first of a three-year deal.
In terms of being NHL ready, Gibson has stepped ahead of his teammates. Regardless, each of the three have done enough to make a positive impact on management.
“All three have been exceptional,” said Dubas.