I'll admit it, I was one of the people pushing the idea of Carter Hart winning the Vezina Trophy.
In hindsight, it's starting to look a little bit stupid. He's 22, making him one of the youngest starting goalies that the league has seen in decades. He's in his second full season of assuming that role,
That was a lot to expect out of a goaltender so young.
Hart was yanked out of the Flyers' net on Tuesday after allowing three goals on eight shots in the first period against the dead-last Buffalo Sabres. Brian Elliott took over and helped secure the 5-4 shootout win, but that was much closer than the Flyers were looking for. The game marked Hart's third pull of the season, a tough blow after allowing four or more goals in four of his past eight starts, including a 5-2 loss to Pittsburgh a week ago.
"It's hard right now. I'm not playing well," Hart said Tuesday.
And he's not wrong. Among the 45 goalies with at least 400 minutes played (mostly made up of NHL starting goalies, with a few other 1A/1Bs thrown in), Hart's 5-on-5 save percentage of .898 is 41st and his goals-saved above average of minus-6.92 places him 42nd. That's rough, especially when Elliott, his backup, sports a 7-2-0 record with a .925 SP and a 1.35 GSAA (both 21st at five-a-side) - not spectacular by any means, but far, far better than his younger counterpart.
"It’s just s----- right now. I don’t feel like myself," Hart said. "And I gotta find a way to get back to playing the game that I love.”
Hart can't take the sole load of the blame. Since March 1, the Flyers have allowed the second-most goals with 16 - only the Sabres (20) have been worse at even strength. The Flyers have allowed the 11th-most high-danger chances (43) in that span, so the defense in front of Hart hasn't been anything special, either.
And it's not about to get easier, either. Five of the next seven games for the Flyers come against the Washington Capitals and the New York Islanders, the two teams sitting at the top of the East Division. Hart has a 2-1 record combined against the two teams, but when you watch him play, it's like he doesn't have that same confidence that made so many compare him to Carey Price.
"Carter is a very young goaltender. We all believe in him, we all think that he's got a tremendous amount of potential," coach Alain Vigneault said. "But it's a tough position. He's going to learn from this, he's going to get better."
The Flyers have been alternating the two goalies over the past few weeks and it hasn't seemed to work. For a young netminder, watching your crease partner find success when you can't can be a complete confidence-killer. Even if it means taking a few extra nights off to clear his mind before taking the bulk of the load back, that could be a difference-maker. The Flyers are in a better spot when Hart's at the top of his game - just re-watch the 2020 playoffs again if you're curious.
Elliott's stats suggest that he's the guy the team needs to ride in the short-term, and, fine. In bursts, Elliott's been great over his NHL career. But he's 35 coming off of a pair of surgeries in the past few years - you can't push him too much at this stage in his career.
The Flyers still have 12 games to play over the next 22 days - if the team starts to falter in that stretch, that could cause series damage in the playoff race, especially in this division-only schedule we have for 2021. The Flyers' defensive struggles have been well noted so they can't make up for any rough outings on Hart's behalf, so the young goaltender needs to have a couple of big starts in the next few games to really give his team a fighting chance.
Maybe riding out Hart, even in the short-term, is the best solution. If Vigneault shows he still has faith that Hart can be the answer, then maybe that helps him prove to himself that he has what it takes to live up to the pressure. This is a franchise that seems to chew goalies up like it's nothing on an annual basis, but that's not the feeling people have with Hart - he's supposed to be "the guy."
Right now, though, he's definitely not. That needs to change, and quickly.