Carter Hart won virtually every award a goalie can win in route to his time in the NHL. Hart has collected a World Junior Championship gold medal, been the CHL goaltender of the year (multiple times), and posted the best goals against average and save percentage in the WHL for two consecutive years. Now in the NHL, Hart has already begun collecting hardware and was recently named the rookie of the month for January. Is he building a case for something more? Let’s ask (and maybe answer) the question everyone is beginning to wonder — does Hart have a legitimate shot at the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie? If you ask me, “Calder” Hart has a sweet ring to it, but it’s going to take more than another great nickname to make it happen.
Before we get into what Hart has done or what he can do, we have to consider the competition and this year…it’s stiff. Elias Pettersson has been electrifying on a Vancouver team that was not expected to be in the playoff picture. While replacing the Sedin twins, Pettersson has collected 24 goals and 47 points in 43 games, which has had most experts projecting he would easily win the Calder. If Pettersson stays healthy for the rest of the season, and scores at a similar pace to his first half, which is not necessarily a given, he would finish with about 77 points. That’s a hefty total and one that’s going to be hard to beat.
Rasmus Dahlin, the first overall pick in the draft last June, is also making a case for some consideration. Dahlin is helping an underwhelming Buffalo team remain relevant by drastically improving their defense and putting up a very respectable 29 points in 52 games. Dahlin probably isn’t as impressive in the eyes of many, at least yet, largely because Pettersson’s impact is easier to quantify and measure in points.
Can a goalie like Hart best Pettersson’s point totals with his on-ice impact? To a large extent, this argument isn’t about whether we think Carter Hart’s performance has been Calder worthy, it’s about what voters typically need to see before voting for a goalie as the Calder winner. How are goalies judged vs their skating counterparts and what does history tell us when looking at goalies who have recently won the award?
The most recent goaltender to have won the Calder Trophy is Steve Mason in 2008-09. Mason took home the award having appeared in 61 games with a record of 33-20-7, helping his Blue Jacket’s reach the playoffs. Columbus was able to make the leap into the postseason after a dismal season the year prior in large part thanks to Mason’s 2.29 goals against average and .916 save percentage. In short, he showed he had a substantial impact on his team and the voters clearly believed that without his performance that team couldn’t have made the playoffs.
Mason’s strongest competition came from two young forwards: Bobby Ryan put up 31 goals and 26 assists while helping Anaheim reach the playoffs as the eighth seed in the West, and Chicago’s Kris Versteeg finished third in Calder voting with 22 goals and 31 assists. The Blackhawks proved to be the best team and were a higher seeded playoff team than the Blue Jackets or Ducks, but that didn’t influence voters. It wasn’t the highest point total or the rookie with the best seeded playoff team that won, it was the best performance with a storyline. Mason dragged a team to the playoffs and that meant something to the voters.
Is there enough runway left for Hart? With only 16 appearances and just 29 games remaining, it’s likely Hart will finish with less than 40 appearances. That’s clearly less than Mason in his Calder winning year, but how does that stack up?
In the last 20 years, only three goalies have won the Calder Trophy and each appeared in more than 50 games, including Steve Mason (61), Andrew Raycroft (57), and Evgeni Nabokov (66). Hart can’t reach 50 appearances in the NHL this year — as there simply aren’t enough games — that’s a disadvantage to his candidacy. However, Hart also has an odd geographical advantage. Hart has a great story to tell with the games he does play, because of where he’s playing them.
Philadelphia has long been considered a place where goalies simply can’t succeed. Whether analysts blame the intense fan pressure, some sort of fictional curse, or management, who they claim routinely made the wrong moves in goal, Philly has often been defined as a graveyard for goaltender’s careers. By succeeding, Carter Hart has the opportunity to be framed as the kid who slayed 40 plus years of demons, and that’s something that Elias Pettersson can’t match.
Would there be a bigger story in the NHL than rookie Carter Hart, in a town where no goalies succeed, takes over the reins of a team and becomes the reason they’re not regularly pummeled? Would his success silence the deafening boos that rained down on past “solutions” that failed, like Ilya Bryzgalov, Roman Cechmanek, Jeff Hacket, and all the others? Would his dominance make up for all the Maxime Ouellet and Tommy Soderstrom types the Flyers have drafted or acquired, trying to develop that one player who could shoulder the load? That storyline alone would be enough to fuel some voters to push for Carter Hart, but it doesn’t end there.
After winning his seventh game in a row as a 20-year-old — something only one other goalie in NHL history has done — Hart has the Flyers surging towards an improbable comeback. A mere couple of weeks ago, the Flyers were 14 points out of the playoffs, but thanks to Hart’s incredible run, the team is at least within viable striking distance. Should they continue winning and earn a playoff berth, it’d loom large in the voter’s eyes. Don’t think so? Think again.
Look no further than Connor McDavid (108 points) who lost the (not Carter) Hart trophy to Taylor Hall (93 points) last year, almost exclusively on the basis that Taylor Hall and the New Jersey Devils made the playoffs and Edmonton did not. The view of most voters who voted for Hall was that he was more important to his team because they achieved a playoff berth. If Carter Hart could manage to take a team that was double digits from contention and push them into the playoffs, you can bet there would be an impact on the voters. Whether they admit it or not, voters love a good story and Hart is certainly that. They also like to measure the perceived impact of a player by using the playoffs as a gauge, especially when considering goaltenders. Steve Mason won the Calder as a goalie and the Blue Jackets made the playoffs. Andrew Raycroft, remarkably, won the Calder in net for Boston and the Bruins made the playoffs. Evgeni Nabokov won the Calder in San Jose and San Jose made the playoffs. The playoffs are going to matter here.
So, what is needed to make Hart a legitimate contender? The list is, unfortunately, rather long. Based on prior winners and a bias for players who drive their team to the playoffs, Hart would almost certainly need to force the Flyers into a playoff spot by year’s end. Pettersson’s Canucks would likely have to find a way to fall out of the playoffs, which is quite possible given that they’re clinging onto the final wildcard spot by a single point.
Hart would also have to likely maintain or even improve upon his 2.48 goals against average and .925 save percentage. Pettersson may even have to stumble a little and fall off his point-per-game plus pace. In a year where Hart could have achieved a higher number of starts, that may not have been as critical, but due to the unique situation here, every little bit helps.
Unfortunately, math does hurt Carter Hart’s chances from a number of angles. The conversation that leads to Hart as a potential Calder winner requires the storyline and that storyline only comes with an improbably playoff appearance, as we’ve already discussed. To reach the playoffs, the Flyers will likely need around 96 points — or 42 of a possible 58 remaining points. If Hart can stay healthy and remain unfatigued, perhaps he could start in another 22 of 29 games but likely no more than that. Continuing to win at his current pace would mean Hart projects to win 13 of those games, good for 26 of the 42 points needed to make the playoffs in the above estimate. It doesn’t take a lot of additional math to figure out that Anthony Stolarz, and the rest of the Philadelphia Flyers goaltender collective, would have to go undefeated in the eight games in which Hart doesn’t play for the Flyers to reach 96 points.
Of course, it is possible Hart could continue on this unfathomable run and win more than 13 of those 22 estimated starts, but how many more? Perhaps one or two? Discounting multiple historic runs in the same year in order to make the playoffs, the Flyers will have to rely on some of the very same goaltenders who had the league’s worst GAA and SV% before Hart arrived. Is it likely those same goalies or this team, sans Hart, can go undefeated?
Hart will almost certainly get consideration for the Calder Trophy and he’s most definitely been one of the more uplifting stories in recent Flyers memory. Maybe he got started a little too late in the year to have a reasonable chance at being voted the league’s best rookie, but that’s not the point. Hart has been a breath of fresh air who has turned even the most vocal skeptics into believers. Hart hasn’t simply stolen games for the Flyers, he’s done it with a smile on his face and renewed the passion of many fans because of it. He walked into a disaster of a season and turned it into an opportunity for all of us to believe again and that’s worth everything to a fanbase that’s been dying to rekindle its enthusiasm for hockey. He may not win the Calder, but the future is bright and Philadelphia is fully on board with Carter Hart. When’s the last time you could say that about a Flyers netminder? That in and of itself is worth some sort of award, even if it’s not the Calder Trophy.