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Sparks longs for clean slate with Golden Knights

Goalie moving forward after concussion, 'emotionally taxing' season as Maple Leafs backup, trade

by Tracey Myers @Tramyers_NHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

CHICAGO -- Garret Sparks was still a little emotional Wednesday, a day after the Toronto Maple Leafs traded the 26-year-old goalie to the Vegas Golden Knights for forward David Clarkson and a fourth-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.

But Sparks, selected by the Maple Leafs in the seventh round (No. 190) of the 2011 NHL Draft, is also ready for a fresh start.

"All I've wanted is a fair opportunity, come [training] camp, to try and make the team," Sparks said after a Chicago Pro Hockey League game at Fifth Third Arena, "and I think that I'll get a better opportunity [with Vegas] than I would have in Toronto. At the end of the day, that's what you're looking for as a player."

 

[RELATED: 2019-20 NHL Trade Tracker]

 

Sparks, who went 8-9-1 with a 3.15 goals-against average, a .902 save percentage and one shutout with Toronto last season, is one of three goalies on the Golden Knights roster. Malcolm Subban was 8-10-2 with a 2.93 GAA, a .902 save percentage and one shutout as backup to Marc-Andre Fleury (35-21-5, 2.51 GAA, .913 save percentage, eight shutouts) last season. Vegas also has Oscar Dansk, who was 27-13-2 with a 2.46 GAA and .913 save percentage last season with Chicago of the American Hockey League.

"They're both guys I've played against in the [Ontario Hockey League]," Sparks said of Subban and Dansk. "Two guys I'm familiar with, two really good goalies and great competition."

Sparks had his ups and downs last season, his first in the NHL since 2015. As the backup to Frederik Andersen, Sparks was 6-2-1 with a 3.00 GAA and .905 save percentage on Dec. 29. But he sustained a concussion when he was hit in the head by a shot from Maple Leafs forward William Nylander during practice Jan. 3 and missed the next five games.

"I felt I was finally starting to build some momentum and get my chance," he said. "I just felt like I got cut down, and it's hard to regrow after you get your progress chopped off like that."

Video: TOR@BUF: Sparks denies Larsson on shorthanded break

After Sparks returned, he went 2-7-0 with a 3.30 GAA and .899 save percentage in his final 10 regular-season games. On April 5, with Toronto preparing for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Sparks was assigned to work with Maple Leafs goaltending coach Steve Briere and Jon Elkin, a goaltending consultant for the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League. Sparks briefly returned to the Maple Leafs to back up Andersen in Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Boston Bruins when backup goalie Michael Hutchinson, whose wife was expecting a child, was on a leave of absence.

Sparks said his season was "emotionally taxing."

"I mean, you realize your dream of playing in the NHL, and then you know, as the season goes on, it gets harder day by day," he said. "It's a grind, physically and emotionally. You could be on the best team in the League, but you're going to face adversity at certain points."

Now Sparks' focus is on Vegas and putting in the offseason work to compete for a spot. He began training with Fitness Formula Club director Bobby Rupcich in his native Elmhurst, Illinois, about 18 miles west of Chicago, on May 3. Sparks is mainly working on his movement around the net.

"I just think that it's going to take another level from what I've even done in the past to be the goalie that I say I want to be, to move the way that I say I want to move, and that's just going to take a lot of work," Sparks said. "I'm in the middle of that process now and I think I'll enjoy that process a little bit more and really take to heart."

Video: TOR@NYI: Sparks fights off Barzal on the rush

Rupcich said, "He feels he's definitely stronger, which is one of the things that was kind of our Phase Two. Our Phase One was just moving with a very wide range of motions, so he's able to get into positions when he is on the ice and cover more territory, so to speak, as well as being strong in his goalie position. When he's in that position and he's stable and his core and everything's firing and activated, he's in control of that area. That's a big piece of the puzzle."

Sparks appreciated his time with the Maple Leafs. Now he'll see what opportunity awaits in Vegas.

"The guys in Toronto that I've talked to since being moved, I've had nothing but positivity and keep on the objective that we had," Sparks said. "I hope they realize their dreams. 

"But now I'm trying to realize mine somewhere else."

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