Inside Carter Hart’s nightmare season

NHL

“You were the chosen one!”

Every time I look at the stats for Philadelphia Flyers goalie Carter Hart this season, I think of Obi-Wan Kenobi screaming that line at Anakin Skywalker in “Revenge of the Sith,” and not just because Gen Xers like myself incessantly relate everything back to Star Wars. (It is … our destiny.)

At just 22 years old, Hart was the heir to the Canadian goaltending empire. He was the solution to the net-minding riddle that had perplexed the Flyers for decades. Maybe he wouldn’t be the next goalie run out of Philadelphia. Maybe he would be the catalyst for their first successful run to the Stanley Cup since 1975.

Hart gave fans these delusions of grandeur because he had the numbers to validate them. In his first two NHL seasons, Hart was 40-26-4 with a .915 save percentage in 74 games. He saved 21.4 goals above average and added about four wins in the standings. In last summer’s bubble playoffs, Hart had a .926 save percentage, winning nine of 14 games and creating Vezina Trophy-level expectations for the 2021 season.

Around 21 games into that season, Carter Hart … hmm, how best to put this … do you remember how Anakin Skywalker looked after that fight with Obi-Wan on Mustafar?

“He’s struggled,” Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said.

Hart is 8-8-3 with a goals-against average of 3.85 and a save percentage of .875. His even-strength save percentage is .885, which is the worst in the NHL for goalies with at least 20 games played. Analytically, he has been the league’s worst goaltender: His minus-18.1 goals saved above average is almost double that of the next-worst goalie in that metric, the Ottawa SenatorsMatt Murray (minus-9.7).

According to Evolving Hockey, Hart has cost the Flyers three wins in the standings. An extra six points, and they’re tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins for third in the East Division. Instead, they’re in fifth place with 34 points and a .548 points percentage, spiraling to a 3-6-1 record in their past 10 games.

What happened to Carter Hart?


“Carter is a young guy. He had some success last year. This year, he hasn’t played at the same level, there’s no question,” Fletcher said.

Like any general manager, Fletcher doesn’t want to put his team’s problems on his goaltenders, although Hart and Brian Elliott have led the Flyers to the worst team save percentage (.880) in a league that, as previously mentioned, still has the Ottawa Senators in it. He believes the players in front of them also deserve blame.

“We’ve given up 27 goals off the rush this year. That’s the most in the league by far. One of the hallmarks of our team last year was that we defended well and didn’t give up those types of chances. It starts up the ice,” he said. “We put lot of pressure on our defense and our goaltender because of it. It’s something we feel we can fix.”

Fletcher also feels he can fix another nagging problem, which is the hole in the lineup left by Matt Niskanen when he surprisingly retired before the season. You never want to assign too much importance for a team’s struggles to the loss of a single player, but Niskanen played a vital role: 22 minutes per game, two-way play and knocking opponents around. He made Ivan Provorov better than he has been this season.

There’s been talk of Mattias Ekholm or (more likely) Alex Goligoski arriving by the trade deadline. They need someone of that ilk, because their failure to replace Niskanen has hindered their blue line.

These are all factors in Hart’s disastrous season, but at the root of it is a goaltender who simply isn’t himself. “Confidence is a funny thing. It’s a results business. If you’re not getting results, it’s hard to feel you’re on top of your game,” Fletcher said.

And Hart is not getting results because he’s not at the top of his game.

Former NHL goalie Stephen Valiquette, CEO of Clear Sight Analytics, is perhaps the best evaluator of netminders working today. The Carter Hart he has seen this season is not the Carter Hart he has seen previously.

“He’s been a really good model of a modern-day goalie. I use him a lot in my coaching. However, this year is off. He is performing below expected on virtually every chance type that we track,” he said.

There are two major points of regression for Hart. The first is in “slot line plays.” Goalies track east-to-west passes in two different ways. For the first, Valiquette uses the “track suit” analogy in teaching goalies. As soon as the puck comes across the “zipper” of that track suit, the goalie’s head has to engage over their leading knee and they begin their push.

The other method is the spread: The pass is coming across, and the goalie launches into a split to defend it.

What Valiquette noticed about Hart: When he’s going down, his knee is hitting the ice as the puck is coming across his “zipper,” before he even begins to push to make the save. Then he engages into a spread.

“Here’s the amazing part: You can mark his skate from where it is before he starts to go into a spread and then mark it after the puck goes into the net, and he hasn’t moved an inch. He hasn’t gained any lateral mobility at all because he’s putting his knee down too early. On any goal he’s giving up on an east-to-west play, you’ll see it,” Valiquette said.

The other metric where Hart has fallen off severely is in rebound-chance goals. I asked Valiquette if this was a symptom of odd-man rushes or not having a clearer back there like Niskanen. Again, he said it’s a problem with Hart’s form.

“He’s down early on just about everything. When you’re down early, your pads are on the ice and the timing for using your stick is always going to be at a detriment when you’re down early. When you have a goalie that’s lacking confidence, they go to the ice early. Carter Hart is always down before the shot is getting to him. Rebounds are coming off of him at spots where the puck should be going down with him,” Valiquette said.

“Imagine I’m shooting a puck at your chest. You collapse on it and then your knees hit the ice. But Carter is down and then he’s getting hit with the puck in the chest. That’s killing his [control of] rebounds.”

Another reason Hart is playing low on so many scoring changes is an instinctual one. Every goalie has their default save. Something they instinctually do as a fail-safe when they’re nervous on a play. Valiquette used to go “right-knee down” when he had to guess at a shot. Hart’s default save is paddle down, taking the paddle of the stick down to the ice along with his right knee. That opens up the net for chances up high, and it also hurts his mobility. If Hart isn’t playing with confidence, that default move gets used too often.

“It’s very safe to say he’s not playing with confidence,” Valiquette said. “Goalies are always in our own heads. We’re very introspective. It’s detrimental if you don’t have enough away from the rink to keep your mind off things.”

That is a problem when life in the past year for Hart has been spent in quarantine, within the confines of COVID-19 protocols, in a bubble and then in a 56-game season that has been mentally taxing on players — especially ones that are Hart’s age.

Fletcher speaks openly about how many of his young, single players have been impacted by this. “Certain players have handled it better than others. It’s a massive mental and emotional challenge this year,” he said. “There will be ups and downs. Some haven’t played to our expectations.”

I asked Fletcher if he would group Hart into this emotionally challenged group, given his lack of confidence and results this season.

“I think all of those young single guys that live alone have had to deal with different issues, like all of us have,” Fletcher said. “I don’t want to get into naming names or singling people out. But clearly the married guys have had it a little easier than the single guys.”

The Flyers have had COVID-19 infections among their players, and had their schedule interrupted for it. They’re not alone, and NHL teams have been reticent to use the pandemic as an excuse of any kind for their lack of success. But Fletcher thinks it’s important to keep the anomalous nature of this season in mind when looking at the young players who have struggled through it.

“Long term, they should be good NHL players. We need to be careful overanalyzing these young players who have been very good in the past,” he said.

The “past” for Hart is still only two seasons. He played just 18 games with the AHL Lehigh Valley Phantoms before jumping up to backstop the Flyers. Valiquette believed that goalies should have at least 200 games of experience in the minor leagues, or a combination of the minors and Europe, before arriving in the NHL. Hart’s trajectory challenged that thesis — until this season.

“I started to think that times were changing,” he said. “But now, I wonder a lot about his mindset. I wonder about being under the microscope and having these technical things that are going on. Does he start to melt a bit under that spotlight? There’s a lot going on for that young man.”

There were other exceptions. Carey Price spent only 12 games in the AHL before joining the Montreal Canadiens in 2007-08. “He came in and challenged for the Calder Trophy. What else are you going to do with him?” Valiquette said.

Fletcher also draws a Hart/Price parallel, for a different reason. “You look back as Carey Price at 22 or Connor Hellebuyck or Marc-Andre Fleury [at a young age]. All of those great goaltenders had some ups and downs early in their careers,” he said. “It’s a tough position. I believe in Carter. I believe in his talent. I believe he’ll be a very good goalie for this franchise for a long time.”

So this horrible, retrograde season for Hart might end up being the same rite of passage that Price and other young, star goalies have endured. Hart could still be the next great Canadian goalie. Hart could still lead the Flyers to the Stanley Cup one day. Hart could still be the chosen one.

Maybe.

“Sure, it’s a rite of passage. But how many goalies never make it through?” Valiquette asked. “How many guys go on that journey and never come back from it?”

Impossible to see, the future is.


Jersey Foul of the week

“The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers” arrives this Friday on Disney+ to the excitement of everyone except the Icelandic. The Ducks flew together in a promo photo with Gordon Bombay himself. Spot the Jersey Foul:

It’s Kenny Wu, played by Justin Wong! He appeared in “D2: The Mighty Ducks,” where he wore a Team USA jersey; and in “D3: The Mighty Ducks,” where he wore an NHL-styled Ducks jersey. He never wore the O.G. Ducks jersey. Although maybe he does in “Game Changers,” which means this may or may not be a Foul, depending on when you’re reading it. Quack.


Three things about Tim Peel

1. NHL referee Tim Peel was taken off the job this week after a hot mic caught him saying he wanted to arbitrarily give the Nashville Predators a penalty in their win over the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday night.

“Nothing is more important than ensuring the integrity of our game,” said NHL senior executive vice president of hockey operations Colin Campbell, who was once caught strong-arming the league’s director of officiating because he felt his son Gregory Campbell of the Bruins was getting called for too many penalties. Of course, those emails were evidence in a court case rather than via a hot mic.

Campbell once cornered me at the NHL’s outdoor game in Santa Clara to discuss my now-infamous “Tequila Summit” with Peel in January 2015 at Foley’s sports bar in New York City.

To summarize: I was a vocal, incessant critic of Peel’s work, running entire stories that chronicled his mistakes. He reached out to me for a meeting the night before he was scheduled to work a game in New Jersey. I went, figuring it would be a good yarn, even if I ended up in a dumpster at the end of the night.

Peel and I had a civil discussion, shared some chuckles and had an enlightening conversation about the nature of “game management,” the kind which got Peel ousted this week. Like the time he called a double-minor penalty on Alex Ovechkin in a 4-0 game between the Capitals and Penguins because the NHL wants those calls made, to ensure games don’t get out of hand. He told me he wouldn’t have called it in a 1-1 game. It was selective “game management” … like calling a penalty on the Predators because he wanted to give them one “early” in the period.

(My favorite part of the conversation: Finding out Peel kept Photoshopped images of himself on his phone because he found them funny.)

The conversation didn’t change my opinion that Peel was quite bad at his job, which was something underscored by how the NHL chose to use him. Playoff assignments are a meritocracy. Peel appeared in the final two rounds of the postseason about as often as the Florida Panthers have. There’s a reason for that.

But our summit did help me understand why he made some of the calls he made: It was because the NHL asked him to. They support and normalize the concept of game management. In wrestling parlance, Peel’s hot mic did nothing more than “expose the business.”

There have been a dozen stories written about how the NHL could use this moment to toss out the game management script in favor of having officials just call the rulebook:

  • The Hockey News: “There is no other sport where the standards for calling the rulebook vary more than they do in hockey. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

  • TSN: “There is an opportunity now to call the rule book exactly as it is written from training camp through the Stanley Cup Final, that a penalty in the first period of the preseason is still a penalty late in overtime with Lord Stanley on the line.”

  • Deadspin: “If the players union were on its toes, this is where they could get some major changes, because you can be sure the guys on the ice contesting these games are sick of this.”

But it’s not that easy. It’s a vicious cycle. We’ve had decades of players and coaches whining about referees “deciding the game” in the third period and overtime by calling penalties, or whining about a power-play disparity in regulation. They like game management, the referees oblige them and the NHL does nothing to discourage it because it helps foster the false sense of fairness and competitive balance the current product is built on.

This is a uniquely NHL problem. The NBA and NFL have their share of “makeup calls,” but usually it’s to make good for a blown call and not do an opposing team “a solid” to even things out. Neither of those sports’ officials put the whistles away quite like the NHL’s do during late-game situations; nor do they make many penalty calls for the sake of preventing future ones.

The NHL doesn’t mind the system it’s produced. Provided, of course, no one’s caught on a hot mic talking about it.

2. It was impossible to read the NHL’s statement this week on Peel and not notice the multibillion-dollar elephant in the room, who probably had the Predators on the puck line against the Red Wings.

“There is no justification for his comments, no matter the context or his intention, and the National Hockey League will take any and all steps necessary to protect the integrity our game,” Campbell said.

The statement was the league’s shoutout to the sports wagering community, acknowledging the public embarrassment Peel caused and vowing to keep everything on the up and up. Is it an overreaction, given that bettors understand that subjective calls are a pox on every team sport? Maybe. But as the NHL tries to grow its gambling audience, better to vow integrity than ignore bias, one supposes.

Now, it would be great if they applied the same due diligence to starting goalies and injury reports …

3. The lasting image of my meeting with Peel was the photo of us hoisting shot glasses in a toast at Foley’s. We took the photo at his behest and I published it at his behest. It ended up getting him suspended for that Devils game the following night, which brings us back to my meeting with Campbell in Santa Clara. He was convinced that I had been the catalyst for all of that night’s events, including the photograph that Peel arranged.

“Why would Peel pose for that photo? Why would he ask you to tweet it?” asked Campbell.

“Sir,” I responded, “are you familiar with tequila?”


Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Losers

The NHL’s new rules reduce the number of picks available in the lottery from three to two, ensuring the worst team in the league will pick no lower than third overall. One year too late, Detroit Red Wings.

Loser: Winners

The NHL’s new rules restrict teams from winning a draft lottery more than twice in a five-year span. Please note this would not have prevented Connor McDavid from ending up in Edmonton had the rule been in place for the past decade.

Winner: Tyson Barrie

Through 34 games, Barrie’s 30 points are good for second in the league in scoring among defensemen. This may end up being a pump-and-dump trade option for the Oilers at the deadline, as Barrie is only on a one-year deal. But after his reputation as an offensive defenseman took a hit during his stint in Toronto, the Connor and Leon Show helped repair it. He’ll get paid.

Loser: Rasmus Dahlin

The Sabres’ franchise defenseman is now a minus-30 on the season after their loss to Pittsburgh on Wednesday, in which Dahlin was undressed by [checks notes] Frederick Gaudreau. This led to former NHL defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo to tweet: “Someone needs to teach Rasmus Dahlin how to play defense. Watching him on the highlight reels get walked every game is not a good look for him or his confidence. Help the kid, don’t keep letting him embarrass himself.” Yikes.

Winner: Alex Ovechkin

He’s still got it, according to his peers and opponents. Ovechkin finished fourth in our ranking of the top 10 wingers — voted on by execs, coaches and players — ahead of Patrick Kane, Mark Stone and Brad Marchand. A legacy pick? Maybe. But a pick nonetheless.

Losers: Brock Boeser and Max Pacioretty

The Canucks and the Golden Knights wingers have combined for 32 goals this season. They combined for zero top-10 votes in our positional rankings, the only two wingers in the pool not to earn one.

Winners: Anyone that knew Bobby Plager

The St. Louis Blues great died Wednesday in a car accident, leaving the hockey community stunned and saddened. He was 78. I saw firsthand how much he loved that city and that team during their run to the Stanley Cup. I also saw how much that city and that team loved him. RIP to a real one.


Puck headlines

From your friends at ESPN

Emily Kaplan with a slice-of-life story on what a Canadian draft prospect has endured this year.

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