Since being recalled from the Lehigh Valley Phantoms on December 17, 2018, Carter Hart has performed well for your Philadelphia Flyers. Don’t believe me? Well, our own Brad Keffer broke down Hart’s play thus far in his 11 games as a starter in the NHL and the results have been pretty good. As Brad states in his article, no, the numbers aren’t ground-breaking by any means, but there is something to be said about a 20-year old net-minder entering the fastest, most highly skilled hockey league in the world with just 17 professional games under his belt and performing the way he has to this point. Let’s be honest, it’s downright impressive what Hart has been able to do given the current situation of this organization.
Most fans and experts, including myself (fan, not expert), assumed it would be at least a year before Hart saw any legitimate time as a starter for the Flyers. I figured he would at least see a game or two this season due to injuries, but never did I think that this year we would see full on Carter “Starter” Hart pulling this team through the muck and mire of the bottom of the league standings. At least until Ronald Hextall was given the boot, I held that belief.
Once our good pal Chuck(y “Two Trades”) Fletcher took over the reigns as GM of the Flyers, it became more apparent that he would be cleansing the house of Ronald’s scent. We’ve seen Jordan Weal traded, Dale Weise waived and hopefully soon to be traded, Chris Pryor and Gord Murphy fired, Rick Wilson hired... I don’t blame Chaz for wanting to do this and quite frankly, I’m fine with these minor moves. However, there was one move in particular that surprised a lot of us here at Broad Street Hockey.
Alex Lyon was loaned back to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms at a very odd time in the midst of a slew of injuries to the Flyers goaltenders. It would have made perfect sense to keep Lyon up with the Flyers in tandem with whatever goalie the Flyers could scour from the waiver wire, allowing Hart to continue carrying the load for the Phantoms, but instead Lyon was sent back down and Hart was called up. At first, I, like many of you, was excited about the beginning of the Carter Hart era. It came upon us quickly, as well as unexpectedly, but it was met with much enthusiasm and exhilaration not just from fans, but from the team itself.
Hart’s first game with the Flyers was magical. Hell, it was spiritual. There was a different air about this team that hasn’t been felt in quite some time and it was a breath of pure oxygen straight to the lungs. Has every game been as awe-inducing? Of course not, the kid is 20 years old! Even still, Hart has been, at worst, a league-average goaltender during his infant NHL career, but the trend is on the up and up with each game he gets under his belt. However, there was a creeping thought in the back of my mind that had me worried, which calls for some questions to be asked as the season moves along and other goaltenders come back from injury. Is it too soon for the Carter Hart era to begin?
Prior to Hart’s call-up, the Philadelphia Flyers had hit rock bottom. Literally. This team was dead last in the league battling with the likes of the Ottawa Senators and Los Angeles Kings for 31st place out of 31 teams. In fact, it’s so bad that the odds of this team making the playoffs have dwindled to a 0.6 percent chance, according to hockey-reference.com’s playoff probabilities report. You want to know what that screams of? A lost season. This team is too far gone to actually compete for a playoff spot and there is not nearly enough season left to make up ground on a competitive Metropolitan division, especially with so many divisional games left in the season.
So, if the season is lost and the Flyers have virtually no shot at making the playoffs, wouldn’t it make sense for them to let the horrific play of the goaltenders (one of the other six goalies they’ve used not named Carter Hart) and special teams tank this season for better odds at landing a top-5 pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft? With names like Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko leading the charge, as well as a decent crop of second-tier players filling out the top-5 in the draft, it would behoove the Flyers to stealth tank from here on out and at least increase their odds of landing a dynamic player in the upcoming draft, right?
Quite the conundrum though, isn’t it? Hart is playing well, so do we want to impede on his development as a goaltender at the NHL level just to land a top-5 pick? The real issue is that Hart is probably good enough to drag this team to the middle of the pack in the NHL within shouting distance of a playoff spot. In the East, however, as we’ve discussed, it’s highly unlikely that they can play out the rest of their schedule and actually play a game after April 6. Anything can happen, but if I’m playing the odds I’m looking at the 0.6 percent chance and hanging on to my money.
So, what should this team do with Carter Hart? As it stands right now, they could call up Alex Lyon, loan Hart back to the Phantoms, and really tank this thing the rest of the way. Once Brian Elliott or Anthony Stolarz is ready to return, Lyon goes back to the AHL and the tank continues. They could also just keep Hart with the Flyers until dad Elliott is ready to return and then loan him back to Lehigh Valley, but do we really want to keep this carousel of goalies going round and round and round until inevitably one of them loses his grip, falls off the ride, and his groin falls out again? Or, does management and the coaching staff see fit to let Hart ride this out until the final game of the season?
I was at that Bruins game. I watched what was arguably the best goaltending performance the Philadelphia Flyers have received during the 2018-19 regular season with my own two eyes. I witnessed Carter Hart ultimately win this game for the Flyers via bail-outs and key saves on multiple occasions. The Flyers should have been buried very early on in that game and the onslaught that would have ensued with any other goalie between the pipes whose nameplate didn’t read “HART” would have been expected, as per the usual with this team. However, after allowing two virtually unstoppable pucks enter the net, Hart locked it down and afforded his teammates the opportunity to claw their way back against a good Bruins team.
You could argue that this was the third time Hart has stolen a game for this team in his short 11-game career with the Flyers, with the others being 2-1 victories over the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators. In those three games combined, Hart stopped 107 of 112 shots for a save percentage of .955 percent. Again, Hart has looked human at times and has been prone to the soft goal here and there just like any other goaltender ever, but he’s shown that he is capable of making some incredibly difficult saves while keeping this team in games.
Then what did he do in the very next game? He comes out against the Montreal Canadiens in Montreal and does the same exact thing. Hart held the Habs off of the score sheet for 47 minutes and 36 seconds. Despite the Flyers only getting one shot in the first period, Hart held them in it and enabled the team to enter the third period with a 2-0 lead. Despite Montreal scoring two goals in the final 13 minutes and change of the game, Hart backstopped his team to yet another win by putting the team on his back and making 33 saves on 35 shots.
So, even if Hart is, at worst, a league-average goaltender for the remainder of this season stealing games here and there, this team will crawl out of the basement and get within sight of postseason action. Is this ideal? Well, I guess that ultimately depends on where you place the most value. Is it more important for this team’s future to have Hart develop more rapidly by staying at the NHL level for the remainder of the season, but also miss out on drafting a top prospect in this year’s entry draft? Or is it better to send him back down, make a playoff run with the Phantoms, move some core pieces / cough Simmonds and maybe Voracek cough / and hope to land a top pick at the draft in order to secure a potential star piece to add to this core?
Of course there is always the possibility that Hart stays up and flounders behind a team that just can’t play that well in front of him. Is he capable of backstopping this team to victories on his own? Yes, he is. Is it fair to subject him to this on a nightly basis? Well, I’m not sure where I stand on that. If it were me, it would absolutely destroy me mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually... Hart is obviously tougher mentally than I am, so he could thrive on that for all I know (and probably does because he’s a goalie and goalies are weird). Again, it all comes down to where you place the most value for this organization’s long term success.
What would I do? Well, thank God I am NOT the general manager of this hockey team because my goodness. The problem is there is value to either situation. Hart stays up and plays well, continuing to refine and develop his game, which helps him hit the ground running next season as the full-time starter. Alternatively, they run this ship into the ground with the platoon of other goalies available and snag a top-5 pick (give me Kaapo Kakko, please and thank you) while moving some core pieces for assets that Fletcher can flip into impact players during the off-season.
Personally, I view Hart as this franchise’s cornerstone between the pipes for the next 15 years, maybe more, so his development as a NHL goaltender is paramount for the future success of this team. The major core of the Flyers’ skaters (my core = Claude Giroux, Nolan Patrick, Sean Couturier, Travis Konecny, JVR, Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, Shayne Gostisbehere) has also been playing much better of late since Hart was called up. To me, that holds more weight in terms of franchise development than landing a lottery ticket as high as possible in an entry draft, so I say keep the kid up and let’s ride this thing out.