The blossoming of defenseman Travis Sanheim and left winger Oskar Lindblom were among the best parts of the Flyers’ disappointing season.
The best part?
That’s easy: The development of 20-year-old Carter Hart, the unflappable rookie who tied an NHL record for most consecutive wins (eight) by a goalie younger than 21.
In a season in which the Flyers set an unwanted record by using the most goalies (eight) in NHL history, Hart showed poise beyond his years. Playing behind a young defense that sometimes made things, uh, adventurous, Hart finished with a 16-13-1 record, a 2.83 goals-against average, and a .917 save percentage.
In his end-of-season news conference last week, Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said Claude Giroux was the team’s only untouchable.
So he would be willing to (gulp) deal Hart, who seems destined to finally end the franchise’s Great Goaltender Search?
Fletcher smiled coyly.
“Sure, if someone wants to give me three or four of their best players and a couple first-round picks,” he cracked. “I should get fired if I don’t do that.”
“Of course, everybody has a price. Am I going to trade Carter Hart? Probably be crazy [if I did]," he said. "Someone would have to give me a deal that’s so stupid, but if they’re going to do it,” he would listen.
Trading Hart, he later added, is like “fantasy land” for another team.
Hart is going nowhere. He looks like the franchise goalie the Flyers have been chasing for a few decades.
Injuries caused the Flyers to recall Hart from the AHL Phantoms on Dec. 17. Having him for a whole season gives the Flyers reason for optimism in 2019-20.
“He obviously had an impact on our team this year,” said center Sean Couturier, who led the Flyers with a career-high 33 goals. “He was great, and you just have to hope he keeps it going. At the same time, you don’t want to put too much pressure on him. He’s still young, and he’s still learning.”
Couturier said Hart is “probably going to go through some ups and downs. Even this year, he went through some ups and downs, and I think the way he responded is pretty impressive for his age. … Now it’s about consistency, game after game, year after year. But like I said, he’s a mature kid for his age.”
Next month, Hart will gain more experience as he plays for Team Canada -- coached by Alain Vigneault, who was hired last Monday by the Flyers -- in the IIHF World Championships.
Hart got his NHL baptism at a younger age than most of the game’s top goalies. Example: Dallas’ Ben Bishop, who is favored to win the Vezina as this year’s best goalie, wasn’t an NHL full-timer until the season in which he turned 27.
“Coming into my first year, I didn’t really know what to expect coming out of juniors," Hart said. "I’ve been through a lot of experiences. Now I know what it is like to be an NHL hockey player. All those experiences I’ve gone through will just help me going forward next year, and I’ll use them going into next season so I’ll be better prepared and ready to go for next season.”
Hart was asked how he copes with the city’s high expectations for him.
“It’s important to stay focused on the task that you’re doing and the group you belong to,” he said. “It’s important that you just worry about all your teammates and you keep the focus on what we’re doing together as a team.”
Hart said it was important to get stronger and faster during his summer training, “so I’m prepared for a long season, 82 games, and I’m mentally and physically prepared to handle whatever workload I’m given. Obviously, I want to play every game; it’s just the mindset I have.”
Selected in the second round (48th overall) of the 2016 draft, Hart said he doesn’t look at his numbers during the season.
“I just kind of go out to every game with a fresh mindset. I don’t want to get caught up in any stats,” he said. “I kind of like to set more physical or technical goals, whether that’s in the gym or on the ice.”
A native of Alberta, Hart said veteran left winger James van Riemsdyk “helped me open my eyes to his approach with off-ice and nutrition and sleep habits, making sure that he’s taking care of his body. He’s always one of the first guys in the gym, and he’s always taking care of his body and doing the right thing.”
Hart sounded as if stopping an Alex Ovechkin one-timer wasn’t a bigger adjustment than some of his new off-ice duties.