The maple leafs can sort out their backup goalie dilemma with this one neat trick – pension plan puppets

This makes the question of who should be the Leafs backup complicated by who might or might not clear waivers. Last season, Garret Sparks cleared at the end of training camp and became the starter on the Marlies. Shortly thereafter, Calvin Pickard, who had cleared waivers in Vegas, was acquired, joined him, and was the number two. Both played in the playoffs, but Sparks was the go-to starter. Both were very good all season, but Sparks sits atop the AHL rankings, and Pickard is a few slots lower.

Sparks has passionate fans and gets the “he deserves a chance” sort of buzz someone always gets this time of year. The cottage industry of telling the Leafs who they should put on their roster rolls on. McElhinney is 35, has a history of very sub-par performance prior to joining the Leafs, and there’s a lot of questions around about how soon he’ll turn back into a pumpkin.

They assume Sparks can’t clear waivers, should be placed in the backup spot now, and that McElhinney will clear. They don’t even mention Pickard, and the clever plan hangs directly on the assumption that McElhinney, who the Leafs got off the waiver wire, and who has put up two excellent seasons since, won’t be of interest to anyone out there. I am deeply skeptical of that in a league where GMs measure goalies by win-loss record and can’t remember much beyond last week.

All of the three goalies in contention to be the backup are paid less than McAdam’s max ELC rate. They’re all on one-year, one-way deals and they all need to pass waivers to be sent to the minors. Not one of them is a prospect or a future starter for the Leafs. If any one of them were tasked with a dramatically heavier load than Curtis McElhinney was last year, the Leafs would be in trouble.

Sparks sparkled in the minors. But at 25, four years younger than Andersen, if he suddenly sparkles in an NHL net well beyond mere tolerable backup level and massively beyond anything he’s done to date, he’ll be stuck behind a better starter. If Sparks is as great as his most passionate fans believe, the Leafs won’t be able to afford to re-sign him, and his asset value will be right back at zero again. One way or another, he’s not the next Leafs number one.

This will never happen because it’s too radical for the timid NHL. But no one should be worrying about who wins this contest. If asset value of near minimum-salary backups and AHLers haunts your thoughts, remember that if they had any real value, one of them would have been traded already. You just don’t get to pretend the thing you have a surplus of is super valuable. Not when it isn’t actually hard to find elsewhere.

This is the only year there is room for spending big on a backup. If the Leafs want to have someone good enough to be a genuine fill-in for Andersen if he’s hurt, they either have to find a young prospect on an ELC or they have to pay for it. James Reimer or Jonathan Bernier are actually the sorts of backups the Leafs need now that they’re at or near contending. But they can’t afford them anymore.