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Save the best for last: No risk, all reward in patience with puckstoppers

Elite prospects typically arrive in the NHL as teenagers. Not goalies, though – rushing them risks ruining them.
Lehigh Valley Phantoms/JustSports Photography

Lehigh Valley Phantoms/JustSports Photography

"Boy, I bet he wishes he could have that one back,” is a phrase I’m sure Flyers fans have gotten used to on Philadelphia broadcasts over the years, and the current goaltending platoon of Brian Elliott, Michal Neuvirth and now Calvin Pickard have not helped the situation. The potential cure for all this is youngster Carter Hart, who had a wonderful junior career that included a gold medal at the world juniors with Canada, not to mention countless awards with the WHL’s Everett Silvertips. Hart was twice named the CHL’s goaltender of the year, and last season he was the WHL’s player of the year thanks to his dominance between the pipes.

And yes, I see the appeal in getting the Flyers some decent goaltending right now. Up front, the squad is blessed with talents such as Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds and the rising Nolan Patrick. The blueline is similarly stocked with exciting names such as Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere.

If Hart played any other position in hockey, he would be in the NHL already. But as everybody knows, goaltending is a different beast, and Hart’s rookie pro campaign is proving why the Flyers must wait for their savior in net.

Hart, who turned 20 in August, has kicked off his pro career with the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms and, no, it hasn’t been a smooth transition. In his first six starts, the rookie surrendered at least two goals in every game and usually several more than that. His .882 save percentage and 3.77 goals-against average were odorous, to be sure.

But I assure you, this is all OK. When the Flyers’ goaltending once again began the season in putrid fashion, it was tempting to look at young Hart and say, give the kid a chance, he can’t do any worse than the other guys, but that would miss the point. Philadelphia needs Hart to be at his best when he finally does land in the Flyers’ crease, and rushing him can only do harm.

These are not the days of Tom Barrasso waltzing into the NHL as an 18-year-old, winning the Calder Trophy and Vezina Trophy straight out of Massachusetts high-school hockey. No, this is a buzzsaw league where you have to be on the tippy-top of your game, lest you get destroyed by the likes of Connor McDavid, Patrik Laine and Sidney Crosby. A “young” goalie these days is still in his early-to-mid 20s, and there’s a reason for that. Even the best netminders need to be strong on their skates and mentally dialled in through years of work, usually in the AHL.

That’s where Hart is right now, and it’s also where the Washington Capitals have sent another top goaltending prospect, 21-year-old Ilya Samsonov.

Now, Samsonov has spent years in Russia playing against men in the KHL. But the European game is different and, once again, Samsonov’s stats with the AHL’s Hershey Bears so far have not been very happy. The big Russian kid is splitting the workload in Hershey with the slightly older Vitek Vanecek and giving up a goal per game more than his Czech counterpart, but again: this is OK. The Capitals in particular don’t need to rush their top goalie prospect since they already have Braden Holtby and, oh yeah, they just won the Stanley Cup. I have no doubt that once Samsonov gets used to the smaller North American ice surface and all the nuances it brings to a newbie netminder, he’ll be fine – more than fine, in fact. Everything about Samsonov’s pedigree suggests he’ll be a very good NHL goaltender one day, just as Hart’s resume says he will lord over Philadelphia’s crease in the not-so-distant future.

But today is not that day.

If you already have a reliable goaltender, you can bring a kid up a bit early. Andrei Vasilevskiy had Ben Bishop in Tampa Bay, Matt Murray had Marc-Andre Fleury in Pittsburgh, and John Gibson had Frederik Andersen in Anaheim.

Right now, the Flyers do not have that luxury. And Hart clearly needs some time to get used to the manly shots he is now facing in the pro ranks, which obviously come in faster and more precise than those in junior. This summer, I asked Hart if Flyers GM Ron Hextall ever gives him advice on playing net in Philadelphia – as Hextall did at a high level in the 1980s and ’90s. “No, he keeps saying he’s not in the goalie’s union anymore,” said Hart with a laugh. “He said he cut up his card many years ago. I don’t think he likes to talk about goaltending anymore. I’ve tried.”

Given what Hextall has seen in his time as GM, perhaps it’s not surprising. But so far, he’s handling Hart the right way. Credit Hextall with not letting that one get by him.

This story appears in the January 7, 2019 of The Hockey News magazine.

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