More than halfway through the 2020-21 season, it’s safe to say there has not been a more monumental disappointment than the Philadelphia Flyers. It’s probably also safe to say there is nobody in world history who has had a worse month of March than Flyers goalie Carter Hart. OK, that might be a bit of a stretch. Julius Caesar had a pretty bad March back in the day, what with his senators assassinating him and all.
The Flyers are in a free fall and so is their young goaltender. Since posting a 28-save shutout against the Buffalo Sabres Feb. 28, Hart has been dismal. He’s either started or mopped up in nine games since then and the best save percentage he’s posted in any of those appearances is .889. So far this month Hart has faced 211 shots and stopped just 172 of them for a save percentage of .815. His backup, veteran Brian Elliott, has been almost as bad. And once again, the Flyers are doing nothing to dispel the notion that NHL-caliber goaltenders go to southeastern Pennsylvania to watch their careers die.
The latest and most gruesome example of this came Thursday night when the Flyers lost 8-3 to the New York Rangers. Hart started the game and stopped six of 11 shots. He was pulled and replaced by Elliott, who faced exactly the same number of shots and stopped two more than Hart. It’s hard to determine who has been worse, the Flyers goalies or the guys playing in front of them. On the rare occasions they do win lately, it’s because they outscored their own terrible defensive play and the poor play of their own goalies. The Flyers are brutal defensively, and that’s compounded by the fact that their goalies can’t stop the puck. Prior to getting on the ice for a workout today, the Flyers had not practiced in 12 days. But they haven’t forgotten how to play the game.
The thing is, when you look at each of the goals Hart gave up to the Rangers Thursday night, they don’t look all that terrible. Goal No. 1: Blown coverage in front of the net for an easy tap-in. Goal No. 2: An odd-man rush against. Goal No. 3: A redirect in front on a power play. Goal No. 4: A one-time after a scramble in front of the net. Goal No. 5: Another one-timer on the power play.
“Our guys continued to work hard and they continued to play the right way, do the right things on the ice,” said Flyers coach Alain Vigneault. “But it seemed every time we made a mistake or gave them an opportunity, it ended up in the back of our net. We went into the game with the right intentions…Every opportunity we gave them early on, they seemed to be able to capitalize on.”
It would most certainly be unfair to pin the blame for the fact that the Rangers outscored the Flyers 17-3 in the space of nine days entirely on the goaltending. But as good as NHL players are, there are going to be breakdowns and you are going to give up opportunities. There are times when you goalie has to bail you out and keep you in games. There’s not a team in the NHL that can summon the will to win when it’s down 3-0 after one period and 6-0 less than three minutes into the second.
So it doesn’t even really matter whose fault this is. One thing is certain, however. And that is this environment is not one where a 22-year-old goalie upon whose shoulders you’re resting your franchise’s hopes should be at the moment. That’s why Carter Hart has to go back to the American League for an extended period of time. This has nothing to do with saving the Flyers’ season and has everything to do with saving Carter Hart. He needs to be saved from the poor defensive play in front of him and he needs to be saved from the toxic negativity that seems to envelope goaltenders in this market. He needs to regain his confidence. He needs to dominate again. And he can best do that playing in the AHL, where he can be sent without having to clear waivers.
Consider the fact that there are six very good rookie goalies in the NHL this season. Vitek Vanecek is 25 and played four years in the minors. Kaapo Kakonen is 24 and played three years in the Finnish League and two years in the minors. Kevin Lankinen is 25 and played four years in Finland and two in the minors. Ilya Sorokin is 25 and played seven years in the KHL. Igor Shesterkin is 25 and played three seasons in the KHL and one in the minors. Alex Nedeljkovic is 25 and played five years in the minors.
Carter Hart is 22 and had 18 games of AHL experience before being declared the Flyers’ goaltending savior. And he may very well be that someday. But that day is not now. The longer he stays in Philadelphia, it seems the further he’s going to get from that day happening. He needs to go back to the minors for his own good and the good of the organization.