Few players entered the 2021-22 NHL season with more intrigue surrounding them than Philadelphia Flyers goalie Carter Hart.
Not only because of his importance to the Flyers and how his play could potentially make-or-break their season, but because he was entering year four of his career and we still did not really know what kind of player he is or is going to be.
The upside is still immense, the promise is still there, and if he reached that level there was a good chance it was going to be a game-changer for a Flyers team that has been searching for a franchise goalie for decades and already had a strong core of players in place.
Through the first quarter of the season, Hart has started to deliver on the promise and potential that gave the Flyers and their fans so much hope.
Through six weeks of the season, Hart has been one of the league’s best goalies so far, climbing to the top of pretty much every statistical category for goalies. He is fifth in all situations save percentage, second in even-strength save percentage, and is doing all of that behind a team that is giving up the sixth most shots in the league per game and only 23rd in the league in goals per game. Everything about their underlying numbers and offense suggests they should be struggling right now.
But they enter Thursday’s game against Tampa Bay with a solid 8-4-2 record that has them right in the thick of a tough Metropolitan Division. In what has to be a shocking twist for what Flyers fans are used to, goaltending is the thing elevating the rest of the team (backup Martin Jones has also played great in his four starts this season) instead of sinking it.
The latter part was a big problem for the Flyers a year ago when Hart badly regressed during the 2020-21 season. It reached a point where he was benched for a few games and even had his practice habits called out. It was a sudden regression from his first two years in the league when he showed the potential to be the Flyers’ long-term answer in goal. It was too early to say this was going to be a make-or-break year for him in Philadelphia (they signed him to a three-year extension in August) but it did seem like this season would go a long way toward giving us a better idea as to the type of goalie he could be.
The early returns this season have been fantastic for Hart and the Flyers.
In his first 10 starts he has had a save percentage of .915 or better in seven of them, while it has been one of the best 10-game stretches of his career.
The Flyers made significant changes to their roster — and especially on defense — this offseason in the hopes of improving their overall play and insulating their goalies a little more. They traded significant assets for Ryan Ellis and Rasmus Ristolainen, jettisoned Shayne Gostisbehere‘s contract, and signed Keith Yandle to a bargain basement deal. While Ristolainen has exceeded expectations, Ellis — the most significant of the additions — has been limited to just four games this season and is going to be sidelined for several more weeks.
Overall, it is hard to argue that the new-look defense has been noticeably better, especially given how many more shots they are allowing versus a year ago under the same coaching staff. The difference is they are getting the version of Hart that they have been hoping for since he was drafted and started to move through the system.
As of Thursday, the Flyers are giving up on average more than 13 “high-danger scoring chances” per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, the third worst mark in the league ahead of only Vegas and Detroit. They only allowed 9.27 per 60 minutes a year ago.
The difference? This season Hart has a .910 save percentage on those high-danger shots this season, third best mark in the league behind only Sergei Bobrovsky and Elvis Merzlikins. A year ago he was at .766 on those shots, one of the worst marks in the league.
The Flyers are always a difficult team to get a firm grasp on because in any given season they are capable of winning 10 games in a row or losing 10 games in a row, and sometimes they find a way to do both. It is not a team without talent, especially at forward. But there are still a lot of improvements that need to be made defensively and until that happens a lot of pressure is going to fall on Hart to get them through it.
So far he has been ready for the challenge.
(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.