EVERETT — By now the story is well-known.
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.
While he didn’t repeat as CHL goalie of the year last season, Hart’s numbers were — by most conventional metrics — better than they were in his draft year. Hart’s save percentage improved from .918 to .927, his goals-against average dropped from 2.14 to 1.99, and he recorded nine shutouts in 54 games after tallying six shutouts in 63 contests the year prior.
Hart defended his moniker as WHL Goaltender of the Year and is poised to win an unprecedented third-straight Del Wilson Trophy next May.
Hart played only one preseason game with the Tips before heading to the Flyers training camp, and a bout with the flu kept him out of a Philadelphia preseason game last week. Nevertheless, he focused on the positives of his time with the team that picked him in the second round of the 2016 NHL draft.
“You’re learning from some of the best in the world,” Hart said. “They’re NHL hockey players, so whatever they’ve done to get there has gotten them there. Some of them are like us and have played in the WHL and have gone through the junior hockey lifestyle. To see them and (also) see some guys from that past that you’ve seen when you were younger that have gone through the junior ranks and are now in the pros, it’s very motivating and it’s good to see.”
Friday’s 7:05 p.m. puck drop against the Kelowna Rockets at Prospera Place marks the commencement of what undoubtedly will be Hart’s final WHL season.
The Silvertips are 1-1 under first-year head coach Dennis Williams and are coming off a win Sunday at home against the Tri-City Americans. Dorrin Luding started in goal both games, with Danton Belluk replacing him halfway through the opener. Belluk has since been reassigned to the Eastman Selects of the Manitoba Midget League.
The Sunday victory partially assuaged the sting of Saturday’s season opening loss to Portland when a 2-0 lead quickly morphed into a 7-4 defeat as the Tips allowed six unanswered goals in the second period.
“I didn’t think we played a bad game on Saturday — we had a bad 10 minutes there, but I thought our response was really good,” Williams said. “And to have good balance of scoring, good special teams on Sunday, good pace to the game, that was the biggest thing. I always tell our guys, ‘We want to win every game, but how we play the game and how we react to it (matters).’”
The Rockets are 2-0 this season and cracked the CHL Top 10 poll at No. 7 this week. Kelowna will have Dillon Dube back from Calgary Flames training camp and he will join top prospects Cal Foote and Kole Lind in the lineup.
On Saturday the Tips travel to Tri-City for the Americans’ season opener at the Toyota Center. Tri-City’s roster will look substantially different than the group Everett beat 4-1 on Sunday.
Winger Kyle Olson, a fourth-round pick in this year’s draft has returned from Anaheim’s camp, as has first-rounder Juuso Valimaki from Calgary. There’s still a question mark as to whether or not fellow first-round pick Michael Rasmussen will be back from Detroit by this weekend.
The Tips then head on their biennial swing through the Central Division. Their next home game is scheduled for Oct. 18.
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