Early in their careers, goaltenders Bernie Parent and Brian Boucher went through the same struggles Carter Hart did this season, and both snapped out of it.
Parent, of course, became legendary, a Hall of Famer who led the Flyers to Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975. Boucher, now a terrific hockey analyst with NBC, became a steady goalie who spent 13 years in the league and still holds the NHL record for the longest scoreless streak in modern NHL history: 332 minutes, 1 second with the Coyotes in 2003-04.
So they speak from experience when they analyze Hart’s agonizing season (3.67 GAA, .877 save percentage) for the Flyers and where the 22-year-old goalie is headed.
And, make no mistake, the Flyers’ future depends more on Hart than on any player in the organization. It’s not even close.
The good news for Flyers fans: Parent and Boucher both think Hart’s shortcomings this year can be fixed. They believe he wasn’t as aggressive and hung back in his net more because of his team’s defensive breakdowns, and believe his body language showed he was not the same comfortable player who looked like one of the league’s best young goalies the previous season.
“I just saw a guy who just wasn’t confident,” Boucher said the other day. “He didn’t look as in control of his game as I saw in the past. Sometimes he was [playing] deep, and there were shots you expected him to come up with, and he didn’t. And once you start to lose confidence, you start to second-guess what’s in front of you; you start to second-guess yourself. You don’t have a lot of practice time to fix things or to go back to the drawing board. It was just a hard year.”
Parent, 76, who can be found fishing from his boat in Avalon on most summer days, had confidence problems early in his career as he struggled in his first two seasons with Boston. Yes, he got straightened out — a stint with Toronto and his goalie partner and mentor, Jacques Plante, sent him on the path to greatness — and became a Philadelphia icon.
Hart has the talent to get straightened out, too, Parent said.
Parent recalled when he was the Flyers goalie coach, and Pelle Lindbergh was having a difficult time early in his career. Parent recommended to management that Lindbergh go down to Springfield in the AHL in 1983-84. He went for a couple of weeks, and Parent went with him.
“We rode the buses,” Parent said. “I think you have to remind the players that they’re in the National Hockey League because they have the talent. But it’s not a matter of [just] talent; it’s a matter of confidence. How do you get the confidence? You look at the details at what’s not working and make the adjustments. Practices were important, and you apply the right things, and it doesn’t take long to get your confidence back. When you have the natural talent, things come back quickly. And in practice, you don’t have the pressure of having 20,000 people watching.”
Practices were rare this season because of a condensed schedule that usually featured three or four games each week.
Lindbergh didn’t have those schedule problems when he and Parent worked together and fine-tuned the young goaltender’s game.
“Pelle worked hard, and, for God’s sake, the following year he won the Vezina Trophy” as the league’s top goaltender, Parent said.
A strong offseason of workouts and a normal training camp, Parent and Boucher believe, will help steer Hart back to his old self, will help restore his confidence.
When he watched Hart this year, Boucher, 44, said he “saw a guy who wasn’t as sharp as when he first came up. He didn’t have the same swagger, and it’s all about confidence. He’s still a talented kid. I mean, this isn’t a guy who all of a sudden lost his talent. He just lost confidence, and when the confidence goes in a goaltender, they look different.”
The man known as Boosh can relate. He had a brilliant rookie year with the Flyers in 1999-2000, a season that started when he was 22, Hart’s current age. He had an NHL-best 1.91 GAA in 35 games, and a .918 save percentage as he carried the Flyers to the Eastern Conference finals, where they had a lead of three games to one against New Jersey but eventually lost in Game 7, 2-1.
That was followed by offseason contract talks that became contentious, leaving Boucher out of sorts He finally signed a two-year deal for a total of $3.1 million just before training camp.
Before he signed, “there were talks about bringing another goaltender in to take my place,” Boucher recalled. “I was completely rattled by the whole negotiation.”
His numbers slipped dramatically (3.27 GAA, .876 save percentage) in his second season, a drop-off similar to Hart’s from 2019-20 to this year.
Boucher wanted to justify his contract.
“I put too much pressure on myself to be perfect,” he said. “I just caved. I think with Carter, it’s a different situation. But I’ll tell you what is similar: I lost my confidence, and I couldn’t get it back that season, and I needed the offseason to kind of reset.”
Belief in Hart
Boucher regrouped — he credited teammate Rick Tocchet for helping him that summer — and had a strong season the next year. He thinks Hart can do the same.
“The team did not defend as well as they needed to,” Boucher said. “I’m not giving Carter a pass because he needs to play better as well. ... He’s going to have to go back to the drawing board; he‘s going to have to learn from this year.
“The thing I will say is that it was such an unusual year because of COVID. There are experiences you have with veteran guys who take you out to dinner on the road, and hang out with you and help you along. They really didn’t have the ability to do that this year. If you’re a single guy and you live on your own, you’re alone with your thoughts, and you’re in your own head. It’s hard.”
Added Boucher: “This was such an unusual year, and I’m not going to sit here and say his career is off the rails. It was such a crazy year. He needs to reset, have a normal training camp, a normal preseason, and get back to work. I’m not saying it’s going to go from 0 to 100 for him and be a top-five goalie in the league next year. ... But he can gradually work his way back to that status he wants to be. It’s going to be baby steps, and the players in front of him have to be better, too. It’s going to have to be a collective effort.”
Parent said training camp will be important for Hart. So will “communicating with the defensemen on and off the ice. ... You have to talk and let everyone know what’s happening out there.”
Hart wasn’t as aggressive this year, Parent said.
“I’ve been there myself,” he said. “Instead of challenging the [shooter] and making the saves, you retreat a little and hope to get hit by the shot, and that’s when the problems start. And if he’s not challenging the shooter, there’s a reason for it. The reason is there may have been a couple guys open on the other side. How can you commit yourself to the shooter when there’s a couple guys open on the other side? So you stay back and hopefully the pass goes across and it gives you a chance to move across and hopefully make the save.”
Bottom line: Reduced defensive lapses from a revised blue-line group, and a more-confident Hart are keys for a bounce-back season in 2021-22.