Flyers’ Rebuild Hinges on Carter Hart Trade Decision

The overhaul has begun for the Philadelphia Flyers. Danny Brière has replaced Chuck Fletcher on an interim basis as the general manager (GM), and more changes loom in the front office. A franchise characterized throughout its history by an unwavering will to compete for a Stanley Cup on a yearly basis will now shift the focus toward a long-term rebuild.

Jeff Marek spoke on Hockey Night in Canada about what a rebuild might mean for the roster construction strategy and how it might impact goaltender Carter Hart. The SportsNet insider spoke about how a substantial return package for a 24-year-old entering his prime could be appealing to the Flyers, and he questioned whether or not the player would want to spend some of the best years of his career on a team with no realistic chance to compete for a Stanley Cup.

Carter Hart- The Player

Any notion of Hart as a reclamation project in need of a change of scenery is oversimplified based on raw stats. His .908 save percentage (SV%) and 2.94 goals against average (GAA) won’t dazzle any trade partners, but he has been Philadelphia’s best player in 2022-23 and one of the only bright spots in the organization over the last two seasons. The thought of a trade is based on the timeline of the rebuild and the organization’s big picture. While the Flyers think highly of Sam Ersson, a goaltender with 10 games of NHL experience will not be the determining factor.

Hart emerged as one of the best up-and-coming goaltenders in the NHL with an excellent performance during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but he crashed just as hard as he rose with a disastrous 2020-21 season. His .877 single-season SV% was worse than any other regular NHL goaltender during the previous decade (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 Philadelphia Flyers
Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

His raw numbers in 2021-22 and 2022-23 have put him in the middle of the pack among full-time goaltenders, but determining his value between the pipes needs to go beyond statistics. The 2021-22 Flyers collapsed in their defensive structure. Hart managed the constant attack of scoring chances well before a late-season injury and the consistent defensive breakdowns pulled his full-season numbers down.

The former top prospect has exceeded expectations in front of a Philadelphia defense that’s only shown minimal improvement in terms of expected goals against in 2022-23. He has proven better durability with a career-high 50 starts in 70 games. Felix Sandström, a goaltender who has never earned the trust of head coach John Tortorella, has been limited to back-to-back situations with very few exceptions.

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Hart currently sits 13th in the NHL with 11.8 goals saved above expected, which is commonly considered the most comprehensive analytical stats for goaltenders. While he isn’t among the league’s top tier, he has shown the potential to carry the team on slow nights. His outstanding play early in the season helped the Flyers to a 7-3-2 record despite terrible play-driving metrics at 5-on-5. He also saved 102 of 105 shots in a three-game stretch in late January and early February that carried the Flyers to a 2-1-0 record against three teams currently sitting in playoff position. 

“I think he’s handled himself as a pro, he’s been consistently… probably our best player throughout the year. He’s been a great professional, and his preparation is impeccable,” Tortorella said about Hart on Feb. 18.

Flyers’ Big Picture Rebuild

Brière spoke on March 12 about his long-term plan for the Flyers. His words provided potential indicators of how the decision-makers in the Philadelphia front office will perceive the idea of trading a player who will enter the 2023-24 season at age 25.

“We’ll have a lot of discussions in which direction we’re going to move, but there’s no doubt that this is not a quick fix in my mind. I believe it’s going to take a little while, but at the same time, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to do a full fire sale and have a completely new team next year…There’s a lot of good young players on this team,” he said.

Brière openly used the word rebuild, ending a nauseating and mundane argument in Philadelphia about the semantics of the state of the organization. However, rebuild doesn’t mean tank. The Chicago Blackhawks clearly made moves during the 2022 offseason with the idea of bottoming out to gain better NHL Draft lottery odds in mind. The specific mention of “fire sale” as a strategy to avoid suggests that the Flyers won’t prioritize a tank.

Veterans like Kevin Hayes and Ivan Provorov will likely move on this offseason because they don’t fit the organization’s timeline for contention or the vision for team-building. The Flyers will consider moving all veterans individually. However, the decision of whether to keep or trade Hart will define the perception of the rebuild in Philadelphia.

After Ron Hextall drafted him in 2016, Hart made his way through the ranks of junior hockey as one of the most-anticipated prospects in the history of a franchise with a tumultuous recent history of goaltending issues. The choice to keep Hart will indicate the desire to keep pieces in place with the hopes that the Flyers can contend in two or three seasons when the franchise goalie reaches his late 20s. A trade would indicate an undeniable step backward at the most impactful position in the sport and an indefinite timeline for the rebuild.

Hart’s Trade Value

Hart is at the point in his career when his value on the trade market is the highest. Goaltenders Carey Price, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Henrik Lundqvist began the prime seven- or eight-year periods of their respective careers by entering the conversation as Vezina Trophy candidates between the ages of 23 and 25. Goaltending is the hardest position in the NHL to predict, and some other great netminders like Marc-André Fleury have experienced much different career paths.

However, Charlie O’Connor called the potential availability of Hart a somewhat “unprecedented” circumstance because of the situation the young goalie has faced early in his career. Hart reached the NHL before the expected age for goaltenders. His experience and a relatively affordable contract in 2023-24 make him a more valuable trade commodity.

Very few goaltenders who get traded in their mid-20s have the kind of high-end ceiling of Hart. Even fewer have the same length of starting experience. The Carolina Hurricanes traded Alex Nedeljkovic at age 23 after he finished third in Calder voting after starting just 23 games during the shortened 2020-21 season. The return was underwhelming, and his play with the Detroit Red Wings eliminates much of a basis for comparison to Hart.

Roberto Luongo rose into the top tier of NHL goaltenders by the end of the 2005-06 season at age 27. The Florida Panthers moved him because of their inability to sign him to an expensive long-term contract. The Vancouver Canucks sent a 30-year-old Todd Bertuzzi with his best years behind him to Florida as the centerpiece of a lackluster trade package. However, the value of goaltenders, the shift in financial decision-making throughout the salary cap era, and the rise of younger players in the modern NHL create a set of variables in the trade that skew the comparison.

The Flyers lack the type of top-end skill players at the caliber of every Stanley Cup winner for over a decade. Filling the void must be the top priority in any trade discussions for Brière and the front office. They will not settle for the same type of return value as recent NHL goaltender trades.

Importance of Hart Decision

The organization has finally chosen to announce a rebuild, but they will need to determine exactly what that means. Every organization in professional sports faces a unique set of circumstances when they look to build a roster into a championship contender. Brière specifically said he plans to avoid a “fire sale” of valuable veterans, but the Flyers need to keep all options on the table in their effort to change the big picture of the franchise.

John Tortorella Philadelphia Flyers head coach
John Tortorella, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The root problem the Flyers face is the lack of skill players on their roster that fit the timeline of their window to compete for a Stanley Cup. Hart at age 24 might fit that window on the surface. However, the right haul of multiple first-round draft picks and a top-end prospect that projects as a first-line NHL player could go a longer way toward completing the rebuild than a goaltender at the peak of his trade value who doesn’t provide enough of a benefit to the team’s short-term future.

Trading a player in professional sports is never as simple as a yes or no question. A decision to move Carter Hart by a franchise known infamously as the goalie graveyard certainly isn’t simple, but a franchise that has sunk as low as the Flyers cannot close the door on big-picture opportunities that could potentially fix their greatest weakness. There is no such thing as an untouchable player in Philadelphia. 

The Flyers need change. Not all change is good, but the potential reward for trading Hart is greater than the benefit he provides in the immediate future. It’s up to Brière and the front office to determine what package can fill the void of top-end talent and whether or not a trade partner considers Hart worth that package.

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