Can the Flyers’ Carter Hart Maintain His Hot Start to the Season?

While the city of Philadelphia’s been greasing telephone poles in preparation for the Phillies’ Fall Classic appearance, the Flyers’ pleasantly surprising 4-2-0 start to the season has flown under the radar. Though it’s still rather unlikely the city has to worry about their telephone poles for a Flyers’ Stanley Cup run this spring, Carter Hart may single-handedly keep them in the wild-card conversation if he continues to play at the level he’s been playing at between the pipes thus far.

Of the Flyers’ four wins, Hart’s been in the net for all four. In those four games, he’s made 137 stops and allowed just seven goals with a remarkable save percentage (SV%) of .949 and 1.75 goals against average (GAA). The only goaltender with a better save percentage than 24-year-old Hart in at least three games is 23-year-old Jake Oettinger of the Dallas Stars. The two young netminders stand among the top of the ranks in nearly all categories. Both possess the ability to put the team on their back and will them to a win on their own. 

For Oettinger, he’s hoping to build off of an excellent sophomore NHL season highlighted by an incredible postseason performance. For Hart, things are a little more complicated.

Hart’s High Expectations

Hart’s been just one of many of the promised solutions to the Flyers’ goaltending woes dating back to 1997. Since Ron Hextall‘s last season as Philadelphia’s starter in 1997, Steve Mason’s been the only goalie to start for the Flyers for more than three consecutive seasons from 2013 to 2017. 

In 2018, for the first time in a while, Flyers fans felt hopeful about their goaltending situation with Hart in the net. In 31 games, the rookie recorded a .917 SV% and 2.83 GAA with 16 wins and 13 losses. In terms of save percentage, it was the Flyers’ best statistical performance between the pipes since Mason’s .918% in 2015. He finished ninth in the Calder race, and there were even calls for his name in the Vezina conversation. 

Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Carter Hart watches the puck after making a save during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Rangers, Sunday, March 31, 2019, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton)

With expectations high for his second season, Hart delivered in 2019-20 with one of the best playoff performances in franchise history in the bubble. In 14 games, he made 399 saves for a .926 SV%, the second-best playoff performance by a goaltender in at least ten games in Flyers history, and willed Philadelphia to their first second-round playoff appearance since the Conference Semifinals in 2012. 

Playing at such a high-caliber level for two consecutive years for such a young player, regression was expected in Hart’s third year in the league (from ‘At 22, the Flyers’ Carter Hart is primed to become one of the NHL’s elite goaltenders,’ The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 12, 2021). Goalies are volatile, unpredictable players, and down years are a part of sports for every athlete. No one anticipated the downfall Hart took, though, from a rookie with Vezina potential to hardly an NHL backup.

The Regression of Hart

Hart was demoted from starter to back up to 35-year-old journeyman Brian Elliot in the 2020-21 season. Hart put up one of the worst seasons in Flyers goaltending history and one of the worst seasons in NHL goaltending history, period. His numbers improved in 2021-22, but that wasn’t saying much, considering how far he fell in the prior year. 

Certainly, Hart’s performance in recent years has been of concern, and you can’t blame fans for their frustration with the young goalie given the team’s struggles in net over the last couple of decades. To the same point, the team in front of Hart, particularly the defense, hasn’t done him any favors. Philadelphia’s defense in their last two seasons could best be categorized by defensive zone meltdowns and giving up a high volume of high-danger shots on the regular. Additionally, chalking up the season as a loss and with a rather destitute roster in terms of NHL talent, in the second half of the 2022 season, the Flyers opted to give a lot of young defensemen with no NHL experience playing time. Beneficial for their development, yes, but for Hart in the net, not so much.

So, What’s Changed?

The Flyers did make some upgrades to their roster in the offseason, specifically in Tony DeAngelo on the blue line. Alongside Ivan Provorov on the top D-pairing, the two of them have the potential to be the first true top NHL defense pairing the Flyers have had in years. Still, under new coach John Tortorella, the theme of this season is “let the kids play,” giving their top prospects a chance to gain consistent NHL experience. 

John Tortorella Philadelphia Flyers
John Tortorella, Philadelphia Flyers Head Coach (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Tortorella’s style of coaching, known for tough conditioning, has benefitted Hart already in his four starts. We’re seeing the Flyers play a much more resilient brand of hockey, fighting a full sixty minutes. They’re not only more in shape, but they know if they don’t give it all every time they’re on the ice, Tortorella isn’t afraid to bench guys. We’ve seen their offense play with much more aggression on the forecheck. For the first time in a while, there’s a fire under the team to play their best and play their hardest. 

The product on the ice has definitely improved from last year, but the overall team success itself isn’t sustainable. Yes, there’s a lot more to be excited about with this roster and its potential than in recent years, but this Flyers team still doesn’t play at the same pace as teams such as the Florida Panthers play, as we saw in the 4-3 loss last week. 

There’s a reason in the Flyers’ four wins that Hart was in the net for all of them. That’s not to discredit Felix Sandstrom but rather to exemplify the high-caliber skill and talent of Hart.

Hart’s Hot Start

In their first three wins of the season, the Flyers fought back after falling behind in all three. Had Hart not been between the pipes for those two games against the Vancouver Canucks and Tampa Bay Lightning, it’s unlikely the Flyers would’ve pulled off the win with just three goals in each to show for. 

With his first two games played against the Canucks and the New Jersey Devils, Hart showed his early bounceback was legit, holding the potent Lightning offense to only two goals. He made 36 stops on 38 shots faced for a .947 SV%.

Carter Hart Philadelphia Flyers
Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Flyers’ defense definitely looks better this year as they’re not spending as much time in their own zone, but we’re still seeing them giving up high-danger scoring chances. They’re the twelfth-highest in the league in shots against per game with 33.00. An improvement from the 33.96 per game last year, yes, but still not great.

We saw those defensive struggles on display in the game versus the Nashville Predators last Saturday. In the second period, in particular, the Flyers’ defense left their goaltender out to dry. At one point, Hart made nine saves in less than three minutes, including an incredible glove save on Matt Duchene from point-blank range.

“He looks calm [in net], there’s not a lot of extra motion,” said Tortorella. “He’s been a very big reason why we’ve come away with some wins here.”

The Sustainability of Hart’s Early Season Success

Tortorella’s statement on Hart’s early success could end up being the understatement of the year at the end of the season. As I said, the reality is the overall team’s success thus far isn’t sustainable for the entire year. They’ve pulled out those four wins largely because of Hart’s strong play. The Flyers are going to be better than last year, but there’s going to be no shortage of some ugly losses with a lot of silly mistakes. 

Hart’s record will definitely take a beating because of the play of those in front of him this season, but as we all know, a goaltender’s win-loss record hardly tells even half the story. He’s going to have bad games just like every other goalie. Again, it’s a volatile and unpredictable position. However, based on what we’ve seen in his first four starts alone, he’s more focused than ever and prompted for a statement bounce-back season. 

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His numbers will drop because, let’s be honest, the chances of any goalie in the current state of the NHL maintaining .949 SV% for an entire season is near impossible. But Hart has the skill and talent to maintain the same level of play throughout the year without a doubt. He may have been written off as Philadelphia’s long-term solution in the net because of the last couple of seasons, but his hot start has shown fans he still possesses the same potential for greatness he did early on.

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