Flyers' Carter Hart is living up to the hype — and he might be a sneaky Calder contender

Since making his NHL debut in mid-December, Carter Hart has been among the best goaltenders in the league. The future has quickly become the present in Philadelphia, and Calder consideration might not be far-fetched.
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Monday was a history-making night for Carter Hart.

Staring down one of the Western Conference’s best clubs, the Winnipeg Jets, in the first game out of the all-star break, Hart turned aside 31 shots and was near perfect on the evening, beaten only by a Jack Roslovic power play deflection, en route to his fourth consecutive victory in his sixth consecutive start. In doing so, Hart became the youngest goaltender in Flyers history to post a four-game winning streak. He’s also just the fifth goaltender in the last 20 years to go on such a run prior to his 21st birthday, too, according to the NHL. Hart joins Carey Price, Kari Lehtonen, Steve Mason and Dan Blackburn in that group. Decent company, to be sure.

More than set a somewhat nebulous franchise mark, though, what Monday’s contest did for Hart was further cement what has become increasingly clear with each passing outing he’s spent in the blue paint. In a season in which little has gone right for the Flyers, a campaign that has seen a coaching change, front office shuffle and is all but certain to end without a post-season berth, the once-perceived goaltender of the future has thus far lived up to his billing and is providing a silver-lining to an otherwise forgettable season.

While it’s always worthwhile to pump the breaks and take pause before passing judgment about a goaltender who’s this early in his career, what Hart has done over the 13 appearances he’s made in the Philadelphia crease is noteworthy. In a campaign in which Flyers goaltenders — not experienced veterans Brian Elliott or Michal Neuvirth, not stopgaps Anthony Stolarz or Alex Lyon and not acquisitions Calvin Pickard or Mike McKenna — have barely been able to maintain numbers that would be commensurate with a league-average keeper, Hart has managed to do exactly that and then some.

Consider that before he fell injured, Elliott had the best numbers of any Philadelphia netminder, far surpassing the sub-.900 save percentages held by all other goaltenders to step foot in the Flyers crease and the near 4.00 goals-against averages that dotted their stat sheets. Elliott’s .911 SP and 2.59 GAA across 14 games actually remain the 25th- and 20th-best marks among the 60 goaltenders. In comparison to Hart’s performance, though, Elliott’s number fall woefully short. Across a similar stay in the crease — 50 minutes separate the two keepers but the rookie has faced 14 additional shots — Hart has turned in a .922 SP and 2.53 GAA. He’s been the cream of an admittedly sour crop. More than that, however, he’s been among the league’s best since he got the call to the big league little more than one month back.

Making his debut on Dec. 18, Hart turned aside 20 of 22 shots in a win over the Detroit Red Wings. He followed that up with a 31-save, one-goal-against performance against the Nashville Predators. And after splitting starts and fighting for the full-time starting role, he’s earned it by posting his aforementioned to-date numbers. Measured against the NHL’s top goaltenders over the past month, too, Hart has shone. Altogether, 26 goaltenders have made at least 10 appearances since Hart’s first game. The Flyers newfound starter sits firmly among the top-10 goaltenders over that time, tied for sixth in SP and sitting 10th in GAA.

Hart’s underlying numbers are just as impressive, too. Among the 61 goaltenders with at least 500 minutes played at 5-on-5 this season, Hart ranks 15th with a .931 SP, putting him in the same range as Frederik Andersen, John Gibson, Tuukka Rask and Carey Price. And the Flyers freshman netminder has managed that SP despite facing the seventh-highest rate of shots against per 60 minutes of the 61-goaltender grouping. Trimmed down to goaltenders who have faced a similar workload since Hart’s debut — there are 28 who have seen at least 400 minutes of action at 5-on-5 since Dec. 18 — the 20-year-old ranks 10th in SP despite the fourth-highest shots against per 60 minutes. Mighty impressive.

What makes Hart’s performance that much more impressive, though, is he’s managed to keep up some stellar numbers despite being a freshman who didn’t so much as have a single game of professional experience before this season. And it might lead some to start asking some other questions if Hart’s performance holds for the remainder of the season, like where the Flyers netminder ranks among this season’s rookie class and if he might be a legitimate Calder Trophy contender come season’s end.

Right now, most will assert Hart’s body of work is too minuscule to put him anywhere near the Calder race. However, with 33 games remaining on the slate for the Flyers, there’s a chance that Hart could end this campaign with nearly half a season spent in the blue paint. Currently at 13 appearances, chances are Hart will get the run of the crease for much of what’s left of the season. Philadelphia is going to want to see how much they can put on the youngster and evaluate him further, and why not get him the experience now? Looking at the Flyers’ schedule, you can almost assuredly cross four starts off of the list for Hart due to back-to-back situations. And for argument’s sake, let’s say Hart also skips another four games here and there. That’s an additional 25 games played over the remainder of the campaign, which would bring Hart to 38 games.

For the crowd who might say that 38 games is far too few for Hart to enter the Calder race, history might suggest otherwise. In 2016-17, Matt Murray played just 49 games en route to a fourth-place Calder finish. In 2009-10, Tuukka Rask finished fourth after 45 appearances. And Price kicked off his decorated career with a fourth-place Calder finish after seeing action in 41 games. There’s precedent for a goaltender with about half a season in the crease to earn Calder consideration.

Price’s rookie campaign in 2007-08 might be an especially good comparison. His .920 SP and 2.56 GAA are about in line with Hart’s current numbers, the difference of course being that Price helped guide the Montreal Canadiens to a post-season berth. However, there is one notable statistic in Hart’s favor: goals-saved above average, a statistic that takes into account shot quality to measure the number of shots saved that would have beaten a league-average keeper. Over his 41 games, Price managed a per-60-minute GSAA of .25 at 5-on-5 and .34 at all strengths. Hart currently has those beaten by considerable margins, as he’s posted a .43 at five-a-side and .46 at all strengths.

The issue, more than Hart’s own play, is outshining apparent Calder sure-thing Elias Pettersson and presumed runners-up Miro Heiskanen and Rasmus Dahlin. Doing so is going to require either some serious show-stealing performances from Hart — and possibly a Flyers run into unexpected wild-card contention — or a downturn in the play of his rookie counterparts. None of that is a certainty, and it might mean Hart’s late-season bid for some Calder love falls short and he follows in the footsteps of Price and Rask and Murray before him: a fourth-place finish that means he’s not headed off to Vegas for the annual awards.

And while that’s too bad for Hart, it’s not the worst thing for the Flyers. That’s because even without the hardware that would scream it to the world, it appears Philadelphia has found the fix for what has long been their greatest shortcoming.

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