It was just last season that Carter Hart took the NHL by storm. Thrown into the fire by the Philadelphia Flyers with the goaltending carousel spinning out of control, Hart stepped into the spotlight and thrived. At 20 years and 127 days old, he became the fifth-youngest goaltender in the past 20 years to win in his first NHL start, he finished with 16 wins, the ninth-most of any teenaged goaltender across the past 40 years, and closed out the campaign by finishing ninth in Calder Trophy voting.
But what seemed like a breakthrough rookie campaign has been followed by a sophomore season that is off to a shaky start, to say the least.
Only months removed from posting a .917 save percentage and 2.83 goals-against average in 31 appearances, Hart has struggled mightily, posting an .862 SP and bloated 3.33 GAA in his first six games this season. And the deeper you dig, the more reason there is for concern. Last season, Hart posted a respectable .917 SP at 5-on-5, a number that genuinely offered hope to Flyers fans who have been long-starved for steady goaltending, but his numbers this year, as his base statistics suggest, have regressed. Case in point: his goals-saved above average is minus-4.58 at 5-on-5 and minus-5.68 in all situations, putting him in the bottom five in both categories among goalies with five or more starts, and the only netminders with at least 200 minutes played at 5-on-5 with worse SPs than Hart (.873) are the Florida Panthers' Sergei Bobrovsky (.865) and Los Angeles Kings' Jonathan Quick (.863).
Hart's inability to find his game early, too, has resulted in yet another goaltending controversy in Philadelphia, one that has been spurred on further by the play of veteran Brian Elliott, who has a .926 save percentage at all strengths and a 2.28 GSAA in six games. Not only that, but Elliott has allowed six fewer goals (11) than Hart (17), despite facing more shots (149 to 123) and more high-danger shots (six high-danger goals on 48 shots versus 11 on 23 shots for Hart). Elliott was brought back to mentor Hart and be a reliable backup to the young star, but early on, Elliott has instead proven to be the steadier of the two keepers.
But is Hart's play really a reason to worry right now? Absolutely not. He's only 21. Very few goaltenders have been tasked with starting responsibilities at his age over the past 20 years. In fact, Carey Price (41 games) and Marc-Andre Fleury (21) are the only active goaltenders who have had more than 20 starts by the time they were 20, and both lived through a similar experience as Hart.
After posting a 24-12-3 record and .920 SP during his rookie season in 2007-08, Price saw his stats dip by a significant margin as a sophomore, most notably his SP declining to a well-below-average .905. That was followed by a 2009-10 campaign in which Price lost the starting job to Jaroslav Halak by season's end, with the Slovakian netminder putting on a playoff performance for the ages and leading the Habs to the Eastern Conference final. At that point, all confidence in Price's abilities looked shot. Fans were calling for Halak to stay and for the team to move on from Price. Instead, Halak was moved to the St. Louis Blues, where he eventually settled in as one of the league's best backup goaltenders. Price? He had 38 wins in 2010-11 and has been a top-five goaltender in the NHL ever since, winning the Vezina Trophy and Hart Trophy in 2014-15.
Going back even further, Fleury, the No. 1 pick in 2003, made the Pittsburgh Penguins straight out of the draft, but he likewise took a few seasons to settle in. His first two campaigns were nightmarish from a statistical standpoint, too: he had just 17 wins over his first 71 games, and his minus-5.38 GSAA and .898 SP in all situations were among the worst by a starting goaltender in 2005-06. As Pittsburgh improved, though, so did Fleury. In 2006-07, he recorded 40 wins for the first time in his career and was pivotal in the Penguins' run to the 2009 Stanley Cup. He's since moved on from Pittsburgh and now resides in the blue paint for the Vegas Golden Knights, but at 35, Fleury is playing some of the best hockey of his career.
And given the difficulties Price and Fleury battled through – and that they're two netminders to whom Hart is often compared – Hart's struggles are to be expected. Growing pains are part of the process for young netminders adjusting to the starting role. So, is it cause for concern? Not a month into his sophomore season, and maybe not even if he has a poor season altogether. If Hart is to become the top prospect he's believed to be, it will take time, just as it did for Price and Fleury, who have gone on to become two of the best goaltenders of their generation.
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