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Maple Leafs replace Sparks with Hutchinson as backup

Struggling goalie will work on game away from team after 2-7-0 stretch in past nine starts

by Dave McCarthy / Correspondent

TORONTO -- Garret Sparks will work on his game away from the Toronto Maple Leafs for at least the next 10 days, and Michael Hutchinson will be the backup goalie until further notice.

Sparks was not at practice Friday and the nameplate had been removed from his locker stall at the Maple Leafs practice facility. Hutchinson, who was recalled from the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League earlier in the day, practiced and is expected to be the backup to Frederik Andersen in the Maple Leafs' final regular-season game, against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; CBC, NHLN, TVAS, SN, SN1, NHL.TV).

Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said the decision was made to have Sparks work exclusively with goaltending coach Steve Briere and Jon Elkin, a goaltending consultant for the Marlies. Sparks made 33 saves in a 4-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday and is 2-8-0 with a 3.37 goals-against average and .895 save percentage in his past 11 games.

"Just over a period of time, obviously things weren't going the right way," Babcock said. "We discuss everything here on a daily basis, and that's the decision that was made."

Babcock said the timing is not ideal, but with the Stanley Cup Playoffs beginning Wednesday, the decision was made to have Sparks work separately from the team so that Hutchinson could get the necessary work in practice to be prepared as Andersen's backup.

"Bottom line is what we tried to do because we believe in Sparks was to give him every opportunity, and so we went back to the well a number of times and then when it didn't get worked out, we made this decision," Babcock said. "You can look at it any way you want and the way we chose to do it is to give him every opportunity to get his game where it needed to be and now the team is way more important than any one individual, so you make those decisions."

Babcock said he has confidence in Hutchinson, who went 2-3-0 with 13 goals-against in five starts with the Maple Leafs in January.

"He's a real good person, he's played over 100 games in the NHL and has played well for us when he's up," Babcock said.

Said Hutchinson, "Getting the call-up was definitely unexpected. I had my bags backed ready to go to Utica (with the Marlies), so I'm really excited to be a part of this and help the team out any way I can."

Babcock said the decision would not affect Sparks' role with the Maple Leafs next season.

Sparks, who helped the Marlies win the Calder Cup in 2017-18 and was voted the top goaltender in the AHL, signed a one-year, $750,000 contract with the Maple Leafs on March 5.

"It's two different leagues, for starters, but I don't think we want to get ahead of ourselves here," Babcock said. "I've been with a lot of real good goalies, and there are times that it doesn't go as good and 10 days off, you work with the goalie coach and you get it back. It's just this is at the end of the regular season, it's different than a 10-day hiatus in the middle of the year. Let's just go through the process here. He won a Calder Cup last year for the organization, so I think it's important we treat him right and help him get his game to where it should be at."

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