Hart Breaking: Thoughts on the Franchise Goalie after Flyers 5, Sabres 4 (SO)

Prior to this season, we went out of our way to tell you how mature Carter Hart is for his age.

When he debuted in the NHL two seasons ago, as a 20-year-old, he was cool as a cucumber. He didn’t get too high after the wins and he didn’t let the losses eat at him. He was always pleasant to speak with because of his honesty and forthcoming nature.

This, we were told, was from his experience meeting with Edmonton-based sports psychologist John Stevenson at a young age. After all, he had faced the most intense pressure a young goalie in hockey could ever face – the starting goaltender for the Canadian World Junior team.

And he handled his role with aplomb as he led his team to a gold medal.

So, if there was anyone who could handle the pressure and scrutiny of trying to become a successful goaltender in Philadelphia, something only a choice few have been able to do in the franchise’s 55-year history, Hart had the makeup to do it, and had it before he ever stepped foot into the cauldron.

Last season, as a 21-year old NHL sophomore, Hart again handled the mounting pressure well. There was a noticeable difference in his game in front of the home crowd and the one on display when he played in visiting barns, and when he was challenged with questions about his lopsided statistical splits, Hart answered them, with a strong chin and even thicker skin, enduring all the punches and pointed jabs that the media and even some of the more overreactive fans on social media would send his way.

This season, it’s been different. Maybe it was the highest of high bars set by some, who considered Hart a Vezina Trophy candidate at such a young age. Maybe it was the quirkiness of the off-season, considering it’s odd timing in the Fall instead of the Summer and the impact the global pandemic had on it. Maybe it was the changes to his game instituted by his personal goaltending coach Dustin Schwartz back in Edmonton that are affecting him. Or maybe its just the pressure of trying to succeed at a position in a city where so many others have failed that is finally getting to him.

Regardless of the reason, The 2020-21 season for Hart has been one to forget so far, and it finally reached its tipping point following the Flyers’ 5-4 shootout win over Buffalo on Tuesday.

Hart had nothing to do with that win. In fact, it was because of Hart that the Flyers had to mount just their second come-from-behind victory this season when trailing after two periods.

Hart lasted just 20 minutes. He allowed three goals on just eight shots in the first period, and upon review it’s likely two of them he should have stopped.

But that’s the way the cookie has crumbled this season for Hart, whose unsightly statistics continue to indicate a falling out of the ugly tree and hitting every branch on the way down:

His goals against average is 3.61. That ranks 41st of 44 goalies who have played at least 10 games this season ahead of only both Ottawa goalies (Matt Murray and Marcs Hogberg) and San Jose’s Martin Jones.

His save percentage is .888, which ranks 40th ahead of the three aforementioned goalies and Detroit’s Thomas Greiss.

Ottawa. Detroit. San Jose. None of these teams had plans on even making the playoffs this season, let alone competing for the Stanley Cup behind a goalie whose name was suddenly appearing in Vezina conversations.

So, to see Hart’s name being included with them among the statistically worst as we approach the halfway point of the season is something no one expected.

But, it’s now a reality.

What’s also a reality is how this is impacting Hart mentally and emotionally – and that’s the biggest surprise of all.

Hart is no longer Joe Cool at age 22. He could be again at some point, but this season has definitely gotten to him:

When he shattered his goalie stick on the ice following an embarrassing loss to the Bruins earlier this season, we chalked it up to one-game frustration, and a message to the team that their defense needed to play better.

He publicly apologized for acting that way, but his teammates and coaches appreciated the emotion. They said it showed how much Hart cared and how much of a competitor he is and how much he wants to win.

But maybe it should have been a harbinger of things to come.

Because at his press availability Tuesday, Hart was certainly not himself. Normally confident and poised in front of the microphone, Hart was sullen, with his hat pulled down over his eyes and his arms pinched in against his torso, making him seem smaller than he actually is.

And his voice… wow his voice… was riddled with uncertainty and a lack of confidence. This sounded nothing like the Hart we have gotten to know so well in the past two-and-a-half years.

He was asked first about his confidence and his positioning in net by Sam Carchidi of the Inquirer.

“I’m just trying to stop the puck and right now I’m not. Plain and simple. I just need to find a way to get back on track because I’m not playing well. I know it. Everyone knows it. It’s hard right now. But the boys battled back and that’s all that matters.”

Then he was asked by Ed Barkowitz, also of the Inquirer, if he was surprised that he was pulled by coach Alain Vigneault after allowing three goals in the first period.

“No. I didn’t play well,” he said. “The boys needed a spark. Moose came in and did a great job.”

Then, after a brief respite as Sean Couturier answered a couple questions, I asked him this:

There is an edit in there (done by the Flyers, not Crossing Broad) where he says the word “shitty.” Here’s a transcription of the whole answer:

“I don’t know, I just need to find more ways to stop pucks – just go out and play, not overthink things and just trust my game. I don’t know, it’s just shitty right now. I don’t feel like myself and I have to find a way to get back to playing the game that I love and trusting the game that I’ve built.”

If you were watching on the postgame show, NBC Sports Philly awkwardly cut away from the answer just before he said “shitty,” because a major market television station that airs the press conferences on about a five minute delay can’t figure out how to bleep out a curse word, so you missed the best part of the answer – and it wasn’t the fact that he called his game shitty.

It’s accurate, sure, but the best part of his answer came after that.

“I don’t feel like myself…”

That’s telling. That’s an athlete’s version of a cry for help. Something is wrong and he can’t fix it or even figure out what it is. That’s not something that gets corrected overnight either. It’s going to be even harder to do in a season with such a condensed schedule. The Flyers are going to need Hart, only because there really is no other alternative besides Brian Elliott, and as well as he’s played, you can’t suddenly ask him to run a marathon when he’s gotten used to jogging a 5K through the neighborhood.

Hart is going to have to battle through the mental and emotional challenges and find his game – which is something that is difficult for any athlete, but especially so for a 22-year-old facing his first real pressure and challenges as a professional.

But there was even more to his answer that was telling:

“I have to find a way to get back to playing the game I love and trusting the game that I’ve built.”

How do you interpret that? Maybe it’s an admission of a lack of confidence. Maybe it’s an admission that he needs a mental break from the pressure. Maybe it’s finally accepting that the changes he made in the offseason might not have been the best idea.

While working with Schwartz and training with Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry, who after an offseason with Schwartz is also struggling with numbers not as bad as Hart’s, but not good either (3.06 GAA, .900 Save Percentage), Hart has done things a little differently this season.

There’s a little more lunging going on. Leading with his chest, almost like a swimmer doing the butterfly. It makes him seem small as he loads up.

It also affects his hand positioning, which is out of whack. It’s why teams are suddenly shooting high to the glove hand side on Hart. Boston wrote the book on that earlier this season and the rest of the division has read it now.

He cheats on his post-to-post move because of so many back door attempts against the Flyers, which is more of a defensive failing, but because Hart is trying to get to the far post a hair quicker, he’s leaving the short side open, and that’s where the second most amount of goals are beating him.

And third, he is playing very deep in his net and is not aggressive at cutting down angles. The Flyers need him to be more Tim Thomas-like and challenge shooters. Instead, he is sitting back and giving them targets and they are finding them.

This tweet, by 97.5’s Jason Myrtetus, shows it perfectly:

I can’t imagine the Flyers are too pleased with these changes. I’m sure goalie coach Kim Dillabaugh is trying anything and everything to break Hart of these habits, but that’s really difficult to do in-season, especially a shortened one. That’s usually an offseason project because it takes so long and requires a lot of practice time.

So, what’s the solution?

A lot of people were asking me on Twitter after the game if Hart should get sent down for a stint in the AHL to find his game and then come back.

One regular tweeter pointed out the Flyers did it with Pelle Lindbergh in 1983-84 and by the next season, he won the Vezina Trophy.

Fair. But that was a 37 years ago. And during a regularly scheduled season. The Flyers have a game every other day, and as great a guy as Alex Lyon is, he’s no more than an emergency NHL goalie. You can’t expect Elliott to carry the load and play something like seven-of-eight, while you keep your fingers crossed that Hart is fixing himself in the AHL.

There’s always the possibility of trading for another NHL-caliber goalie to keep on the Taxi squad, which would give Hart the time he needs. And that makes some sense. Except, in this city….

While anything is possible, the fact is, the Flyers need Hart. And they need him this season. This month. Hell, next week.

I expect Elliott will start both games against Washington this week, but I think we’ll see Hart again against the Rangers in New York next week.

But then again, I could be wrong. If you listen to AV, he’s got to make decisions in the moment that are in the best interest of the team to win, and if that means leaving Hart behind for a bit, then so be it.

“I replaced him because I didn’t think he had been good enough. I told Moose he was going in.  At the end of the day, it’s the toughest position in hockey. Carter is a very young goaltender. We all believe in him. We all think that he has a tremendous amount of potential. It’s a tough position. He’s going to learn from this. He’s going to get better. I believe he has to battle a little bit harder in goal at this time. I’m confident that he will work with Kim and he will try to get his game to where it needs to be so our team can have a chance in every game.

“You got to find a way to win games and a goaltender has to find a way to stop the puck. That being said, I’ve been very fortunate in this game to have some great goaltenders in front of me and in front of my teams. (Henrik) Lundqvist, (Roberto) Luongo, etc, etc.  All those goaltenders at one time or another went through challenging periods. All players do. Not just at the goaltender position. But all players do. You got to show mental strength, mental fortitude and you have to battle through. That’s what we expect Carter to do.”

He has to do it. He and the Flyers have no other choice at this point.

For more Flyers coverage, follow Snow The Goalie on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Also be sure to tune into The Press Row Show as Anthony SanFilippo and Russ Joy provide pregame and intermission coverage of every Flyers home game from press row of the Wells Fargo Center via the Crossing Broad Facebook page, YouTube Live, and Twitter, and their Twitter accounts   

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