Carter Hart lost a lot of games this season, but the Philadelphia Flyers’ 22-year-old goaltender hasn’t lost his confidence.
“I believe in myself and I believe that I can be a top goaltender in this league,” he said last week. “I’m just going to be looking forward to a great offseason of training. Get settled back in with my family and friends, and get a good plan going forward for this offseason.”
It was a disastrous season for the former Everett Silvertips star, and, at times, somewhat lonely.
He hasn’t seen his family in the Edmonton area since December. And because he lives alone — and because of COVID-19 restrictions — he sometimes felt isolated when he was away from the rink and his teammates.
“You kind of go home and you’re just in your own thoughts the whole time because you just sit and sit in your apartment alone,” Hart said. “But things were a lot better at the end (of the season). I was feeling a lot happier and hanging out with the boys more, and I think that that was kind of a big part of my (improved) play toward the end was just enjoying the game more and being more grateful for where I am — in the NHL, in the best league in the world.
“So instead of dwelling on other things, (I was) shifting my focus toward being more grateful.”
Hart called the abbreviated 56-game season, which featured a condensed schedule, “challenging for everyone. Tough circumstances, COVID and everything. Some guys, it didn’t affect them, and others more than others”
Hart finished with a 9-11-5 record, a 3.67 goals-against average, and an .877 save percentage. The latter two stats were among the worst in the NHL. He did not resemble the guy who looked like one of the league’s best young goalies the previous season. Opponents found a weakness — shooting high to the glove side — and capitalized.
But Hart takes some encouraging vibes into the offseason. He played better in two of his last three outings — including a 31-save, 2-1 shootout win April 15 in Pittsburgh in his final appearance — before a sprained left knee kept him out of the last 13 games as a precaution.
“My level of confidence in Carter is very high. He’s a good young man,” Flyers coach Alain Vigneault said. “He probably went through, for the first time in his life and his career, adversity. You have to go through adversity to get better and to grow. He’s gone through that.”
During one 10-game stretch, these were Hart’s game-by-game save percentages: .815, .889, .625, .846, .833, .750, .880, 786, .875, and .545.
“He got off to a good start and then it became challenging,” Vigneault said, mindful that the defense in front of Hart, including the forwards, struggled during most of the season. “He faced some adversity. I think that adversity is good. It’s going to make him better. He’s still a very young player playing a real tough position. With the right mindset, the right attitude and the right work ethic moving forward, he’s got all the capabilities to become a real solid goaltender. Now he’s got to go out and prove it.”
Said Hart: “I’m looking forward to having a clean slate next year. I think we all are, and we’re all going to be better next year. I know it.”
Hart, a pending restricted free agent, has been on the ice recently, and has not had any ill effects from his knee injury.
“I feel great,” he said, adding that he and his longtime sports psychologist, John Stevenson, are back to talking regularly.
“Carter’s no different than a lot of 22-year-old individuals,” Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said. “Every walk of life, whether you are in college, working or in sports, he’s a young man that’s finding his way.”
‘A precocious talent’
Like Vigneault, Fletcher believes Hart will come back strongly next season.
“We’ve asked a lot out of Carter,” Fletcher said. “He’s a precocious talent. He’s climbed the ladder very quickly. This year didn’t go the way he had hoped, the way we had all hoped, but there’s a lot of talent there. I think our expectation is that Carter will make the adjustments necessary and come back, be the goalie we all want him to be and that he expects to be.”
In his first full NHL season in 2019-20, Hart had the league’s eighth-lowest GAA (2.42), along with a .914 save percentage. That season, he steered the Flyers past Montreal in the opening round of the playoffs, and carried them into a Game 7 in the conference semifinals against the New York Islanders.
“He’s a top-end talent,” Fletcher said. “It’s a tough league, but he’ll make the adjustments he has to make and he’ll return to form.”
Hart’s teammates feel the same way.
“From getting to know him, seeing his work ethic and how he goes about his professional game, I think he’ll be one of the best goalies in the league next year,” center Kevin Hayes said. “He’s a player that myself, this team, and this organization are really relying on. I think everyone has a ton of confidence in him and knows how hard he works. I think he’ll get away from the rink, reset, and figure out his best way to go about getting back to where he was.”