Flyers Seeing Desired Rebound from Hart in 2021-22

Carter Hart rose through the ranks and became a top NHL goaltending prospect with an outstanding junior career for the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League (WHL). His effort to lead Team Canada to the gold medal at the World Junior Championship in 2018 helped convince the Philadelphia Flyers organization and fan base that they had found their long-term solution in the crease with their second-round selection in 2016. 

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Player development paths in the NHL are not linear, and perhaps nobody has demonstrated that more so than Hart. He is now in his fourth season in Philadelphia after already experiencing a variety of wacky twists and turns for a franchise notorious as a goaltender graveyard in the 21st century. However, he has established himself as a stable netminder with the bounceback effort general manager Chuck Fletcher hoped for when he handed the 23-year-old a three-year bridge contract worth $3.979 million in average annual value (AAV) in August.

Highs and Lows for Hart  

During his rookie season in 2018-19, Hart provided hope for the Flyers within a chaotic revolving door of eight starting goaltenders, an NHL record. He reached a high point with outstanding play during the 2019-20 postseason with back-to-back shutouts that catalyzed the Flyers to their only playoff series win since 2012. He plummeted in 2020-21 with the worst single-season save percentage (SV%) among regular NHL goaltenders since the 2009-10 season (from The Athletic, Flyers 2020-21 report card: Grading everyone from Claude Giroux to the coaching staff to Carter Hart, 5/13/21). 

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

The monumental disappointment from Hart and former teammate Brian Elliott between the pipes became a key factor in Philadelphia’s failure to make the postseason in 2020-21. They allowed more goals than any other NHL team, and former head coach Alain Vigneault handled the struggles of his young goaltender with questionable logic. He challenged Hart’s practice habits and stressed the need for him to work harder to correct his issues.

Hart’s abysmal .810 SV% in March 2021 prompted Vigneault to send him to work with goaltending coach Kim Dillabaugh away from the rest of the team while sitting as a healthy scratch for two games. He ultimately finished with .877 SV% and a 3.67 goals-against average (GAA) in 27 games.  

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Vigneault’s criticism didn’t match the attitude of Hart’s teammates, who admitted their accountability for a poor defensive structure that did their goaltenders no favors. During the 2021 offseason, Fletcher also emphasized an improved defensive system as a major factor in allowing Hart to return to form. Entering the 2021-22 season, most analysts considered Hart’s ability to regroup the top question mark the Flyers would face in their quest to return to the postseason and to Stanley Cup contention. 

Hart Bouncing Back in 2021-22

Fletcher said on Jan. 26 that the 2021-22 Flyers’ season has led to “the biggest disconnect” he has ever felt between where a team should be in the standings and where they actually are. His offseason additions haven’t produced the desired effect. Long-term injuries to key players have ravaged their roster, and the defensive structure has not noticeably improved. The Flyers are seventh in the Metropolitan Division and 17 points out of playoff position.

The disastrous season in Philadelphia has pushed Hart’s rebound effort to the backburner. The Sherwood Park, Alberta native has a .915 SV% in 29 games in 2021-22. His numbers align with a reasonable expectation for a career median. He finished with a .917 SV% in 30 games in 2018-19 and a .914 SV% in 43 games in 2019-20. His 2.80 GAA is also drastically improved from his cringe-worthy 2020-21 campaign.

Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton)

Only the Buffalo Sabres have allowed more shots on goal than the Flyers in 2021-22. Hart has faced 40 or more shots four times in 2021-22 after seeing 40 only once in each of the previous two seasons. However, he has shown an ability to handle high volumes of shots. He ranks fourth in the NHL among goalies with at least 25 games played with an average of 29.42 saves per game.

Hart produced a signature performance when he stopped 39 of 40 shots on Nov. 12, 2021, against the high-powered Carolina Hurricanes in a 2-1 victory in Raleigh. He helped the Flyers win their final two games before the All-Star break by saving 37 of 40 shots against the Los Angeles Kings on Jan. 29 and 32 of 33 shots in a highlight-reel performance against the Winnipeg Jets on Feb. 1. 

One of the most encouraging signs has been Hart’s ability to recover from poor performances. He allowed four goals in the season opener against the Vancouver Canucks, including one on a sloppy misplay. However, he recovered and allowed just 10 goals over his next five starts. He allowed 18 goals over his final four starts before the Flyers fired Vigneault in December, but he has gotten back on his feet under interim head coach Mike Yeo. He has kept his team in multiple games despite their opponents showing an ability to drive play and control the puck extensively in the Philadelphia zone.

Future with the Flyers

The Metropolitan Division is home to Frederik Andersen of the Hurricanes, Igor Shesterkin of the New York Rangers, and Tristan Jarry of the Pittsburgh Penguins, three of the top four goaltenders in GAA this season who all have realistic hopes to win the Vezina Trophy for a playoff team. Meanwhile, Hart has not established himself in the top tier of NHL goaltenders in terms of statistics or team success. 

Hart is tied for 12th in SV% among full-time goaltenders and 19th in GAA. According to Natural Stat Trick, his 6.03 goals saved above average (GSAA) is the 13th most in the NHL, and his .843 SV% on high danger shots is 18th best among goaltenders with at least 20 games played. He has provided stability for a struggling team, but the majority of his statistics land in the middle of the pack among starting goaltenders.

Everett Silvertips, Carter Harts, WHL, CHL
Former Everett Silvertips goaltender Carter Hart, the CHL’s top goaltender in 2016 (Photo by Terry Wilson / CHL Images)

The Flyers are 27th in the NHL in goals per game, and their starting goaltender hasn’t been able to stand on his head in front of a shaky corps of blueliners to bail them out. However, throughout the holistic mess that is the 2021-22 season for Philadelphia, the organization can identify Hart’s performance through a comparable sample size to his 2020-21 season as the bounceback effort they were looking for.

The Flyers do not plan to bottom out as part of a long-term rebuild. They hope to “aggressively retool” with veterans like Sean Couturier and Kevin Hayes and developing players like Joel Farabee and Cam York currently on their roster. They should also consider Hart as a foundational building block at the most impactful position in the sport. Despite the inevitable pessimism that will result from a drastically disappointing 2021-22 season, the continued development of their franchise goaltender will provide the biggest cause for positivity in an otherwise bleak situation.