All aboard the Carter Hart hype train.
Making his long-awaited NHL debut on Tuesday night, the day after his first call up to the big club, the 20-year-old stepped into the Philadelphia Flyers crease and turned aside 20 shots, backstopping a team that was fresh off of an absolutely dreadful swing through Western Canada to its first win in five games. In the contest, Hart, the 48th pick the 2016 draft, looked calm and collected, cool-headed and dutiful en route to becoming the youngest goaltender to win his NHL debut since Carey Price picked up his first win more than 11 years ago. Hart was everything the Philadelphia faithful wanted him to be.
For a litany of reasons, Hart is deserving of every bit of ink he’ll get Wednesday, and you can rest assured he’ll get a lot. Per the NHL, he’s the second youngest goaltender to take the crease in Flyers’ history and the fifth-youngest goaltender to win his first start in the past two decades. And winning in his debut is yet another noteworthy accomplishment for a young keeper whose resume already boasts three Del Wilson Trophies as the WHL’s top goaltender, two CHL goaltender of the year honors and a pair of World Junior Championship medals with Team Canada, including a gold at the 2018 tournament where Hart posted an outstanding .930 save percentage across six starts.
But the reason Hart will get the most press is because his victory brought with it hope, something that has been absent from the Philadelphia crease for what feels like decades. The Flyers’ top prospect was already projected as the goaltender of the future and was the second-highest ranked keeper in The Hockey News’ Future Watch 2018, but the auspicious start to Hart’s career offers reason for Flyers fans to believe that they’ve finally found the answer to their longstanding crease concerns, that this fresh-faced Canadian kid can be Philadelphia’s own Price or John Gibson or Henrik Lundqvist.
It will certainly help Hart’s cause, particularly in the immediate, that the team he’s set to play behind has been one that has had all the statistical makings of a stingy defensive squad. Matter of fact, before we go slapping any additional superlatives on Hart’s performance, it should be said that the Flyers played exceptionally in front of him against a struggling Detroit Red Wings side on Tuesday. Seemingly given a kick in the pants by the coaching change — Dave Hakstol was, in press release speak, “relieved of his duties” and replaced by interim Scott Gordon on Monday — Philadelphia pieced together a dominant performance that saw them gather the bulk of the shot attempts and hold Detroit to just 22 shots over the course of the evening. As much as it was a win for Hart, it was an excellent top-to-bottom effort from the Flyers.
That hasn’t exactly been all that rare for Philadelphia this season, however, despite what the league’s fourth-worst goals-against total would suggest. Truth be told, while some may try to absolve Brian Elliott or Michal Neuvirth or Anthony Stolarz of their shortcomings this season, it should be said that the Flyers have been fairly consistent defensively throughout the campaign. At 5-on-5, Philadelphia ranks favorably in suppressing the opposition’s offense, ranking eighth with 54.4 attempts against, sixth with 28.5 shots against, third with 23.6 scoring chances against and fourth with 9.6 high-danger chances against per 60 minutes of play.
But what does that mean for Hart? Does that mean he’s bound to succeed this season, that his win on Tuesday was the start of some brilliant, Steve Mason-esque rookie run that sees the Flyers youngster challenge for the Vezina Trophy and swoop in and steal the Calder Trophy from current frontrunner Elias Pettersson? Does it mean that he’s here to stay in Philadelphia? Not necessarily, and that’s for a couple of reasons.
First, the Flyers’ brass faces a tough decision when it comes to Hart. Yes, he won his debut, and yes, his single-game performance statistically puts him ahead of all but one of the six (!) goaltenders Philadelphia has used this season. But the Flyers also only made the move to recall Hart from the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms after it was necessitated by Stolarz’s recent injury. So, what happens when Stolarz, not to mention Elliott, returns from injury? Philadelphia will have to decide if it’s worth shuffling pieces in order to fit Hart into the fold right now.
But the second question, and the most important one, is whether sticking with the big club is the best thing for Hart’s development right now, to which we would suggest that it’s not. Though the defensive play of the team in front of him is conducive to his success, there’s really not all that much for Hart to gain by taking potential lumps in the NHL instead of getting used to the pro game at the AHL level. Getting reps in the minors is a tried-and-true method, too.
Just consider the crop of quality young netminders in the NHL right now. It’s a list dotted with keepers who cut their teeth in places other than the NHL, making a goaltender such as Price (who, yes, has struggled this season) the exception, not the rule. And let’s look at a few of the top young goaltenders, shall we? Anaheim Ducks starter Gibson spent a full year in the AHL before two up-and-down seasons between the minors and the bigs. The Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy spent pro seasons in the KHL and split two years between the AHL and NHL before becoming a No. 1 in Tampa Bay. Connor Hellebuyck spent the better part of two seasons as an AHL starter before he became the Winnipeg Jets’ go-to guy.
The fast-track is fine and Philadelphia’s defensive numbers would arguably make it one of the best possible situations for the youngster. But there’s also nothing wrong with letting Hart — who won’t be old enough to celebrate a victory with a post-game adult beverage for another 200-plus days — marinate longer in the AHL once one or both of Elliott or Stolarz return from injury. And that doesn’t mean the hype train has to stop, only that it needs to make a brief stop over in Lehigh Valley before it really starts chugging through Philadelphia.
What does Hart’s NHL debut portend for the future, if anything? Here’s a look at how the league’s 31 starting netminders performed in their respective debuts:
John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks
April 7, 2014 — Win, 18 saves, 18 shots against, 1.000 SP
Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins
Nov. 20, 2007 — Win, 30 saves, 32 shots against, .938 SP
Carter Hutton, Buffalo Sabres
April 27, 2013 — Loss, 25 saves, 28 shots against, .893 SP
Mike Smith, Calgary Flames
Oct. 21, 2006 — Win, 22 saves, 22 shots against, 1.000 SP
Curtis McElhinney, Carolina Hurricanes
Nov. 25, 2007 — Loss, 15 saves, 17 shots against, .882 SP
Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks
Feb. 2, 2006 — Loss (Shootout), 29 saves, 34 shots against, .853 SP
Semyon Varlamov, Colorado Avalanche
Dec. 13, 2008 — Win, 32 saves, 33 shots against, .970 SP
Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets
Oct. 7. 2010 — Win, 29 saves, 31 shots against, .935 SP
Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars
Nov. 6, 2008 — Loss (Shootout), 39 saves, 43 shots against, .907 SP
Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings
Nov. 28, 2005 — Win, 22 saves, 24 shots against, .917 SP
Cam Talbot, Edmonton Oilers
Oct. 24, 2013 — Loss, 25 saves, 27 shots against, .926 SP
Roberto Luongo, Florida Panthers
Nov. 28, 1999 — Win, 43 saves, 44 shots against, .977 SP
Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings
Dec. 6, 2007 — Win, 15 saves, 17 shots against, .882 SP
Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota Wild
Dec. 21, 2009 — Loss, 19 saves, 26 shots against, .731 SP
Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens
Oct. 10, 2007 — Win, 26 saves, 28 shots against, .929 SP
Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators
Dec. 15, 2005 — Win, 35 saves, 38 shots against, .921 SP
Keith Kinkaid, New Jersey Devils
Dec. 9, 2014 — Loss (Shootout), 37 saves, 39 shots against, .949 SP
Thomas Greiss, New York Islanders
Jan. 13, 2008 — Loss (Overtime), 25 saves, 29 shots against, .862 SP
Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers
Oct. 8, 2005 — Loss (Overtime), 24 saves, 27 shots against, .889 SP
Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators
Dec. 1, 2002 — Loss, 23 saves, 26 shots against, .885 SP
Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins
Dec. 19, 2015 — Loss, 24 saves, 26 shots against, .923 SP
Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks
Dec. 3, 2013 — Win, 26 saves, 28 shots against, .929 SP
Jake Allen, St. Louis Blues
Feb. 13, 2013 — Win, 15 saves, 18 shots against, .833 SP
Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning
Dec. 16, 2014 — Win, 23 saves, 24 shots against, .958 SP
Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs
Oct. 25, 2013 — Win, 26 saves, 27 shots against, .963 SP
Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks
Oct. 18, 2011 — Loss, 29 saves, 31 shots against, .935 SP
Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights
Oct. 10, 2003 — Loss, 46 saves, 48 shots against, .958 SP
Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals
Nov. 7, 2010 — Win, 23 saves, 25 shots against, .920 SP
Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets
Nov. 27, 2015 — Win, 14 saves, 15 shots against, .933 SP