Talking through various Carter Hart thoughts and feelings

The Flyers’ young goalie had probably the worst game of his career in Tahoe on Sunday, and his season’s got out to a pretty rough start. What should we make of it all?

No big intro here. Just gonna talk about Carter Hart (and associated topics) for a while, because sometimes the situation just calls for that.

1. Let’s preface all of this with a general reminder that shouldn’t be necessary, yet definitely is, for nearly all of us, myself included: 11 hockey games is not enough time to draw meaningful implications. Sure, we can talk about and evaluate what’s happened in that time — we’re going to do that here, in fact. But it also ... is not enough time. It’s barely enough time to draw meaningful, lasting conclusions about a team. It’s not enough time to do that about an individual player. It’s definitely not enough time to do all of that with a player who has a pretty established track record. And that all applies multiple times over with a goalie, far and away the most unpredictable position in the game.

Which is to say that if you thought a player was good — or bad, or average — coming into this season, you probably should not be significantly altering that opinion based on what you’ve watched in 11 games. (Especially not 11 games in this extremely weird hockey season.) This conversation doesn’t end there, but it certainly starts there.

2. And in this particular case, it feels like the track record of the particular player in question is noteworthy. Carter Hart’s Elite Prospects page goes back to 2011-12, when he posted a .887 save percentage in 19 games as a 13-year old on a U15 major bantam team in Alberta. That year, as far as I can tell, was the last time Hart was ever below-average in a season in the league where he’s spent most of his time.

You probably already know of his conquests in juniors — four straight years of solid-or-better play with the Everett Silvertips in the WHL. And you know what’s happened in the NHL prior to this season — two years of average-plus goaltending, by a 20-and-then-21-year old, in a league where 20 and 21-year-olds don’t really get a chance to play goalie.

This is why it becomes A Huge Thing every time Hart has a cold stretch. Partly because we in Philadelphia have some well-earned Goalie Distrust, but also because Hart just ... doesn’t really falter for extended stretches. If the rest of this season for him looks like what we’ve seen so far, it would be a huge outlier for him, which is why it’s worth talking about.

3. OK, with that out of the way: whoooooooooo boy did Carter Hart stink on Sunday night. Just bad. Really, really bad. I’ve always kind of felt that the way we talk about goalies after losses can be a little off — how often do you hear “well, he didn’t let in any easy ones” as if stopping the hard ones isn’t part of their job? — but part of that is because it’s rare that you see a goalie at this level let in many easy ones, rarely more than one a game. You could pretty reasonably make a case that Hart let in four easy ones against Boston — or, at the very least, ones that weren’t “hard ones” — and that’s just not acceptable from a goalie in the game’s premier league.

Yes, the circumstances have to be acknowledged. The team in front of him was missing basically half of an NHL forward corps. The defense, as it has been most of the season, was not good. The other team had maybe the best goal-scorer in the NHL not named Ovechkin. And while I’m guessing he was able to see the puck a bit cleaner than we on TV were, the whole “the game happened outside and it’s hard to track the puck” thing can’t exactly be ignored.

Still, it was bad. And not that your eyes or a quick look at the box score couldn’t have told you that, but the numbers can add a bit of color here. On Evolving-Hockey, there’s a goalie statistic called Goals Saved Above Expectation (GSAx), which weights the shots a goalie faces on the likelihood that they’re going to go in the net and measures that “expectation” against the actual number of goals a goalie allows. By that measure, Hart allowed 4.11 goals above expectation on Sunday night, the single worst in a game in his NHL career.

So yeah. Not good.

4. And while you could completely waive it aside if it was a one-off, it isn’t out of line with how the season has started for Hart. It hasn’t been consistently bad, but the highs haven’t been as high as they’ve been in previous seasons, and the lows have been lower.

Here’s a quick look at Hart’s GSAx by game over the course of his NHL career so far, playoffs included. Right off the bat, you can see that his two worst games to date have been this season (both against the Bruins), and while there have been a few very good games in there as well, there haven’t been as many as there have been in previous years.

Again, “Hart’s been worse this year than he was the previous two” is not and should not be news to anyone. But the fact is that his lows so far this year have basically been as low as they’ve been in his career to date, and probably lower.

5. That said, there’s a thing we as fans tend to do where we put a lot of weight on what happens at the beginning of the season. It makes sense to a degree — this is the only hockey we’ve seen in a while — but there is zero chance the reaction to Hart having a few bad games would be as strong if they were during, say, the second quarter of the Flyers’ season rather than the first quarter.

That in mind, it’s a little bit funny that the only comparable stretch in Hart’s career to this one also happened at the beginning of a season. Let’s take that above chart and re-frame it a bit. Below is Hart’s rolling 10-game GSAx over the course of his career, with the orange lines representing the beginning of a new season. This helps us look past the highs and lows of single games and look at how things have been going for a (still somewhat brief) period at a time.

Indeed, the only stretch in Hart’s career that has looked like this was one ending in late October 2019, a month where he had a run of five straight below-expectation games including three absolute stinkers against the Oilers, Stars, and Islanders. (This stretch of 10 games, in fairness, did also include three unimpressive games from the end of the 2018-19 season.) And that run produced some mild concerns at the time, again because we had nothing recent to compare it to. I would know; I wrote a bit about them then.

As we try and figure what may happen this time around, in the games following this setback, it’s perhaps worth noting that Hart saved 4.26 goals above expectation in the 10 games following that bad stretch last season.

6. The struggles don’t seem to have scared his coach too much, at least not yet. As that game was happening, I was expecting Hart to get pulled after Boston’s fourth goal of the game, the third straight that Hart had a clean look at and just couldn’t get a glove on. He would instead stay in through the remaining minutes of the second period, which ended with him having given up two more goals — another one that he probably should have stopped, shortly followed by a power play deflection that would have been tough to beat.

BSH Radio’s Charlie O’Connor mentioned in his gamer over at The Athletic that Vigneault was apparently planning to pull Hart after that fifth goal* but didn’t want to bring in Brian Elliott in cold right as Boston was going on a power play, and by the time Boston had scored that sixth goal, the period was almost over and they figured they’d wait until the intermission to get Elliott in. That’s all reasonable, though again, there’s a pretty strong case to be made that Hart probably should have got the hook right after Boston made it 4-2. Which underscores the fact that Hart seems to have the confidence of this coaching staff, because you don’t leave a guy in after three straight softies if you don’t think he’s about to turn it around.

(* It’s not entirely clear that this was the case; as Charlie points out in his piece, Vigneault said that he was going to pull Hart after “their fourth goal”, but proceeded to describe the situation after Boston’s fifth goal, following which the Bruins were immediately put on the power play. We’ll make the assumption he meant to say “fifth”, as there was theoretically nothing situational stopping him from pulling Hart after the fourth goal and he chose not to.)

Of course, even if Vigneault is worried about Hart now, the thing is ...

7. Really, what’s the alternative? Brian Elliott has played well in his limited time this year. That’s great news for the Flyers, who got a mixed bag from him last season. It would be really easy, right now, for the Flyers to tell Hart to take a seat for a few games and try and let Elliott calm things down for a bit. And that would be a mistake.

Last season, when Hart got out to that bad start, Elliott once again got out to a pretty good one, and the Flyers ended up starting him in three straight games. In the middle of that stretch, I went back and briefly recapped all of the times in the Dave Hakstol and Scott Gordon eras that the Flyers leaned on Brian Elliott as soon as it looked like an appealing option, only for him to either get injured, totally run out of gas, or both.

Guess what? Elliott only started more than two straight games one time the rest of the season (during a time when Hart was injured). Hart rebounded, Elliott was a perfectly fine backup, and Vigneault by and large hit the right notes on when to start which guy basically every night.

The same lesson pretty much has to apply here. Hart’s been a regular starter since he was in juniors, and in the only stretch of poor play comparable to this one in his NHL career, he continued to get regular time and immediately rebounded. Unless the Flyers know something about Hart that we don’t, the right move here is to keep giving him a fairly steady workload, mixing Elliott in as needed but not more or less than that.

Because the bottom line here is the same as it was then: if the Flyers are going anywhere important this year, it’s because Hart played a big role in their success. It is basically impossible to imagine a successful season that does not involve Hart playing a lot and playing at least adequately. That probably ain’t gonna happen on the pine.

8. I needed a bit of a sanity check after the particular way in which that game on Sunday was brutal — namely, with the goalie allowing four goals that, to this observer, looked like stops that an NHL-caliber goalie should make. So I briefly went and tried to get a quick answer to this question: is Hart having particular struggles against easy shots, or was this a one-off in that particular department?

The answer tends to veer more towards the latter, based on what I could find. I pulled the xG of every shot on goal that Hart has faced since reaching the NHL, bucketed them into five groups of increasing difficulty, and looked at how Hart has done in terms of stopping shots in each of those buckets in his three NHL seasons. He’s been a little worse against the “low-danger” shots, but you can pretty clearly see that his troubles relative to past seasons have been against the tougher ones.

I think I would have actually felt a bit better if the answer was “he’s not stopping the easy ones”, because I just have a hard time believing that Hart is going to keep letting total howlers get past him. The question of whether he’s stopping the dangerous ones at a high enough clip, though, does produce a follow-up that we probably don’t want to talk about but may have to...

9. Even if it’s only 11 games, the start to this season makes up about 11% of Hart’s NHL career to date. That’s a not-insignificant portion of it, which is basically to say that the sample size for Hart — even if it’s very large for a goaltender at his particular age — isn’t that big. And while the first point in this piece did say that your opinion shouldn’t significantly change based on 11 games, every data point needs to be taken into account as we try and project what kind of player he’s going to be going forward.

Hart’s next appearance will be, including playoffs, his 100th in the NHL. In his first 99 games, his total GSAx is all of 0.51 goals over average. On aggregate, he has been about as average as a goaltender can be, no matter how high the highs have been or how low the lows have been.

That’s not bad. Average is not bad, and teams can win with average goaltending. (The Flyers, with their current setup, probably cannot win much with average goaltending unless they can continue to shoot 15 percent, which they won’t, but that’s a conversation for later.) And there is still plenty of room for projection with a guy who is going to reach his 100th NHL game at an age younger than that at which most goalies make their NHL debut.

But while you can’t make sweeping conclusions based on what we’ve seen to start this season, you also can’t just ignore it. As we talked about earlier, Hart hasn’t been below-average for an extended period in a long, long time. His long-term floor as a goalie in this league looks like it’s pretty high. But he’s had his share of peaks and valleys, and so far in his career those have basically evened out. For him to be the guy that we and the Flyers think he’s going to be (and, perhaps against my better judgment, I still do think he is), there need to be more peaks than valleys.

10. He’s still ours, though. Look, whatever else I’ve had to say about Carter Hart in this space, no one can deny this: he has truly become one of us.

Carter Hart becoming “the guy in the group picture wearing the Eagles hat” hours before the worst game of his NHL career all just feels a little bit too on the nose, doesn’t it?