Goaltender Carter Hart of the Philadelphia Flyers experienced a nightmare season in 2020-21. The highly touted 22-year-old goaltender undeniably lost confidence in his ability to stop the puck. His .877 save percentage was last in the league among 54 qualified goaltenders and the worst for an NHL regular in the past 11 seasons. (from The Athletic, Flyers 2020-21 report card: Grading everyone from Claude Giroux to the coaching staff to Carter Hart, 5/13/21) He was pulled from the game four times in only 25 starts. He ultimately sat out the final 13 games of the season as a precautionary measure after suffering an MCL sprain.
Hart, a native of Sherwood Park, Alberta, was anointed by the organization as the goaltender that would finally stabilize the revolving door of netminders that has persisted throughout the past two decades of Flyers hockey. He debuted in the NHL in December 2018 and provided a refreshing beacon of hope for the team during a season in which they used an NHL record eight starting goaltenders.
The optimism continued to grow after a strong season in 2019-20, when Hart posted a 2.42 goals-against average (GAA) and a .914 save percentage (SV%). He improved on his regular season numbers during the 2020 Playoffs and recorded two shutouts in Philadelphia’s opening round series victory over the Montreal Canadiens. Hart and backup goalie Brian Elliott also helped keep the Flyers afloat in the standings amidst an early season struggle to gain continuity in 2020-21.
Flyers Tailspin, Hart Helpless in Net
Hart’s downslide began when he started against the Boston Bruins in the NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe game on Feb. 21. He was pulled following the second period after allowing six goals on 23 shots in a 7-3 loss. The trip came following a COVID-19 outbreak among the Flyers during the month of February, and scheduling changes forced them to play 19 games in 33 days shortly after returning to the East Coast.
Hart had trouble adjusting to the condensed schedule, and he never regained his footing once his struggles began. He recorded a cringe-worthy .815 SV% in March, and his struggles snowballed with the Flyers’ inept defensive play in multiple embarrassing blowout losses. The team ultimately suffered a disastrous month of March in which they lost 11 of their 17 games and fell out of playoff positioning. Frustration boiled over at points for the heavily scrutinized netminder.
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Former Flyers goalie Brian Boucher commented on Hart’s apparent lack of confidence evidenced by his tendency to “retreat a little and hope to get hit by the shot” instead of challenging shooters. (from The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Boosh and Bernie on Flyers’ Carter Hart and his struggles: Been there, done that, but good days are ahead,” 5/14/21) The issue was exacerbated by poor defensive zone coverage in front of him and Elliott’s inability to carry the load in net to take pressure off of Hart in a situation where the young goaltender desperately needed it.
He was given a week off by the organization in late March extending into early April in order to regroup and practice fundamentals with Flyers goaltending coach Kim Dillabaugh. The time spent away from scheduled team activities seemed to improve Hart’s rhythm. He ultimately bounced back to record a 2.31 GAA and a .910 SV% in his final five starts of the season following the hiatus and prior to the MCL injury.
Looking Toward the Future
The Flyers finished 31st in the league in goals allowed and collective save percentage. They failed to adjust accordingly to the oddities of the second consecutive pandemic-shortened season in ways that their division rivals did. Although Hart was never reported to have suffered from the virus, he expressed the difficulties resulting from the pandemic in a candid exit interview last week. He mentioned the mental toll of living alone and the inability to interact with teammates or anyone else on a regular basis, and he attributed his improvement during his final five starts to feeling a better comfort level and a more optimistic viewpoint on his situation in Philadelphia.
The resounding sentiment within the Flyers organization reflects a desire to reset after a bizarre season that was ultimately lost due to a wide variety of factors, one of which was the growing pains of their presumed No. 1 goaltender. Head coach Alain Vigneault showed no hesitation to challenge Hart this season, but he has also expressed trust in his young goaltender’s mental strength amidst adversity, and his confidence in a strong rebound from Hart in 2021-22. The Flyers will likely pursue a backup goaltender with more durability this offseason, but their trust ultimately still rests in Hart as their long-term netminder and a centerpiece to the organization’s future.
Colin Newby is a freelance journalist from Delaware County, PA covering the Philadelphia Flyers for The Hockey Writers. He is an encyclopedia of useless sports knowledge with an uncanny ability to rattle off Flyers goaltending stats from 2004 and every Stanley Cup winner during his lifetime. The depths of his knowledge stem from spending his entire life following the Flyers and the NHL, from fan favorites like the Legion of Doom and Claude Giroux to no-namers like Andy Delmore and Branko Radivojevič. Colin also writes fictional sports stories and covers the Philadelphia Eagles.