We begin this one with a story from September of 2017, told courtesy of the Everett Herald’s Jesse Geleynse:
On the eve of the 2016-17 Western Hockey League season, Philadelphia Flyers general manager and former NHL goaltender Ron Hextall sent Carter Hart back to the Everett Silvertips with the charge to once again be “the best goaltender in junior hockey.”
“It was kind of the exact same message,” Hart said Tuesday.
But this time there was a caveat: the Philadelphia brass didn’t just challenge him to be the best goaltender in junior hockey — they challenged him to be the best player in junior hockey regardless of position.
See, in Philadelphia, we’re not really used to good things happening when it comes to goaltending, particularly when the expectations are high. But you’re here on a Flyers website in August, so you probably know that, and don’t need me to go into much further detail on the matter.
That in mind, the reason Flyers fans are counting down the days until they’ll be able to see Carter Hart in action yet again is that every time high expectations have been put in front of him, he’s met them. The Flyers told him to and be the best player in junior hockey and then he went and did it. (Arguably.) When he had to backstop Team Canada to a World Junior Championship this past season, he did it.
Fans have been keeping an eye on Hart ever since they first learned about him at the 2016 draft, when the Flyers made him the first goalie off the board with the 48th pick. He’s aced every test thrown at him since then, and as he officially joins the professional ranks this fall for his first full season in Pennsylvania, he’ll be facing his biggest test yet.
No. 4: Carter Hart
Age: 20 (8/13/1998)
Size: 6’2”, 180 (via)
Acquired Via: 2016 NHL Draft — Round 2, Pick 48
2017-18 League/Team/Statistics: Everett (WHL) - .947 SV%, 1.60 GAA in 41 GP
Ranking in BSH Winter 2018 25 Under 25: 5
First, let’s briefly wind through just how absurd of a season Carter Hart had this past year with the WHL’s Everett Silvertips. Hart, due to an early-season illness and his mid-season trip to World Juniors, played in just 41 of the Tips’ 72 games this past season. Here’s how much better he was than his peers in those 41 games:
- Hart posted a goals-against average (GAA; the number of goals allowed per 60 minutes of ice time) of 1.60; this led all WHL goalies, and among those that played in at least half of their team’s games, the next-best GAA belonged to Portland’s Cole Kehler, who posted a 2.77 GAA — more than a full goal higher than Hart’s.
- His regular-season save percentage of .947 was the best recorded save percentage of at least the past 20 years of the WHL, by a fairly significant margin; the next-best was .937. As The Athletic’s Alex Appleyard pointed out back in March (subscription required), not only is Hart’s save percentage the highest recorded for a single season of Canadian junior hockey, but the gap between Hart and the WHL’s second-place goalie in save percentage, Victoria’s Griffen Outhouse (who came in at .914 on the season), is the largest gap ever between any CHL league’s save percentage champion and its runner-up in a given season.
- Hart recorded a shutout in one out of every six games played, and led the league in shutouts (with seven).
- In the postseason, Hart was a big-time slacker, failing to dominate the WHL at historic levels and instead posting just the second-best save percentage among regular goalies with a .921 across 22 games. (This was still good enough to anchor the Silvertips all the way to the WHL finals, where they lost to the Swift Current Broncos.)
This all came alongside the aforementioned victory at World Juniors, in which he was the top goalie in the tournament and played in all but one of Canada’s seven games en route to the gold medal. Everything was coming up Carter this past season, and there’s a somewhat reasonable case to be made that he’s the best goaltending prospect in hockey right now. As he heads to the pros, you can’t have a conversation about the Flyers’ long-term outlook without at some point wondering when and where the 20-year old from Alberta will make his way into the picture.
So what are the big questions surrounding Hart, beyond those that come with the ever-present fear that we aren’t allowed to have nice things when it comes to goaltending? What do we know and need to know about the guy that most have mentally penciled in as the team’s goaltender of the future? Let’s run through some more points about Hart that are worth discussing.
- What in his game does he have to work on? Hart is an incredibly intelligent goaltender whose success is mostly rooted in his positioning and technique. His highlight reels are rarely that interesting, because he’s a player who knows what’s going on in front of him at all times. It’ll be interesting to see how he handles the professional level, at a time where goalies are getting bigger and more athletic than ever before. Hart is fairly average-sized by goalie standards at 6’2” and 180 pounds, and his athleticism (The Athletic’s Corey Pronman called it “decent” in his review of the Flyers’ system) isn’t a big part of his game at this time. It remains to be seen how he’ll handle the increase in skill that comes with a jump to the professional level, and whether players think they can pick their spots against him. There’s not much in his game that really needs refining, per se, but he still has to prove that what’s worked for him at lower levels will continue to in the AHL, and that he can adjust if it doesn’t. Speaking of the AHL, though ...
- Is there any chance Hart will break camp with the Flyers? No. Well, probably not. To be fair, no one with the team has said that there’s zero chance Hart will make the team, which he has stated is his goal for this season. And I suppose the circumstances in which this could happen do exist, particularly if there are injuries (quite possible, given who the Flyers currently plan to trot out in net) and if Hart impresses in whatever action he gets during training camp and the preseason (also quite possible, given that he is very good at hockey). But in a normal timeline, it’s difficult to imagine the Flyers handing the reins over to a 20-year old, even in a limited role. Via hockey-reference, only three players since the full-season lockout — Marc-Andre Fleury (in 2005-06), Carey Price (2007-08), and Steve Mason (2008-09) — have handled at least 20 NHL games in a season within three years of being drafted, and the most recent instance of that happening was a decade ago. The learning curve for goaltending is steep, and the position’s development is too fragile and unpredictable for teams to be comfortable throwing young guys straight to the wolves. Again, barring unforeseen circumstances, Hart will begin the year by heading to Lehigh Valley, where he’ll split the net with (presumably) Alex Lyon in some sort of to-be-determined timeshare.
- So when will he join the Flyers? No one can be certain given the Flyers’ general conservatism with prospects, particularly since we’ve never really seen the team promote a goalie prospect under Hextall for any reason other than injury. So truthfully, we’re all just guessing here. That said, one has to think that the Flyers are hoping that this coming year goes well for him at the AHL level, and that if that happens then he’ll likely be on the NHL team the following year. With 33-year old Brian Elliott and perpetual injury risk Michal Neuvirth both on contracts set to expire this year, there is no obvious NHL-level goaltending plan for the 2019-20 season. If you’re looking for a time to fit a talented young goalie on the roster, there won’t be a better one. Of course, that’s all contingent on Hart proving he belongs this coming season.
And that’s the real inherent fear in all of this. Goaltending in general (and yes, it seems, for the Flyers in particular) is extremely unpredictable, and moreso than with other positions it’s extremely tough to project how a goalie will handle meaningful jumps in quality of competition the way Hart is about to. This was a point of consternation among Flyers fans in their reactions to Pronman’s aforementioned Flyers system ranking (which we reacted to here), because it’s fair to ask whether a guy who spent this past season re-writing the CHL’s goaltending record books at 19 should be considered more than just a “legit NHL prospect” behind the likes of Morgan Frost and Joel Farabee. But there’s still so much risk in assuming that success is inevitable in net, and even a consistently excellent netminder like Hart has to shake the uncertainty that comes with his position.
This is a guy who, with the possible exception of his runner-up finish in the 2017 World Juniors (in which Team Canada tried to give his starting role to Connor Ingram before going back to Hart in the semifinals and gold medal game, where they would finish second), has largely not encountered significant failure in recent years. But goaltending in the NHL is a job in which regular failure is more or less part of the job. The best goalies on the planet regularly go through slumps and wild stretches of variance, even moreso than their skater counterparts typically do. Maybe Hart really is just that dude, and is about to break all existing norms and expectations that exist at his position, but chances are at some point this year he’s probably going to take a punch (not a literal one) (I think), and how he gets back up from it will tell us a lot about what kind of a prospect the Flyers have on hand.
Regardless of the concerns, though, fans are well within their right to be excited to see what Hart will do this coming season. In a prospect system that has excellent goaltending depth, pretty much everyone agrees who has the best shot to be the team’s long-term netminder. And even with the Flyers’ prospect depth at the skater positions and the uncertainty surrounding goaltending in general, many that you’ll talk to believe that Hart is their top prospect outside of the NHL today. (Our ranking of him here would suggest that we feel that way.) What the Flyers’ plans are for him is anyone’s guess, as is how he handles his first taste of pro hockey. But even though the expectations are high, and even though that’s typically a disaster when it comes to goaltending in this town, it feels as though no one’s come around in a long time that has as good a chance to bring some stability to the net as Hart does.
How We Voted For Carter Hart
How We Voted At No. 4
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How The Community Voted For Carter Hart
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Previously in Philadelphia Flyers Summer 2018 Top 25 Under 25:
- Intro & Honorable Mentions
- No. 25: Noah Cates
- No. 24: Mark Friedman
- No. 23: Danick Martel
- No. 22: Matthew Strome
- No. 21: Taylor Leier
- No. 20: Nicolas Aube-Kubel
- No. 19: Felix Sandstrom
- No. 18: Tanner Laczynski
- No. 17: Jay O’Brien
- No. 16: Samuel Morin
- No. 15: Isaac Ratcliffe
- No. 14: German Rubtsov
- No. 13: Mikhail Vorobyev
- No. 12: Wade Allison
- No. 11: Robert Hagg
- No. 10: Joel Farabee
- No. 9: Scott Laughton
- No. 8: Oskar Lindblom
- No. 7: Philippe Myers
- No. 6: Morgan Frost
- No. 5: Travis Sanheim