‘Now, he’s one of those guys’: Carter Hart making a push for Canada’s Olympic team by getting back to his ‘foundation’
One of the few bright spots for the Flyers, Hart is in contention to make Team Canada’s roster, which will be announced in early January.
At the Ford Performance Centre in Toronto during the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs, the man Carter Hart long analyzed and admired via television stood before him in living, breathing color.
Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens warmed up in an area of the practice facility right next to Hart and the Flyers in the Toronto bubble. When Hart first saw Price up close and in person, the 21-year-old goalie hesitated to introduce himself and required some prodding from former partner Brian Elliott.
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“He was all nervous to try to go talk to him, but I’ve talked to Pricer before a few times and he’s just the most approachable guy you can get,” Elliott said. “So I just told him to definitely go up and talk to him and he was kind of over the moon about it.
“He’s got to get over that, ‘cause now, he’s one of those guys.”
From sharing a sheet of ice for the first time on Feb. 21, 2019 — “[I was] so starstruck that he was in the other opposing goal,” Hart, now 23, recalled — to sharing a conversation about the playoffs and family the following year, the two western-Canada-born goalies now have something else in common: They’re both in consideration to make one of the most difficult teams in sports, the Canadian Olympic team.
Marc-André Fleury (Chicago Blackhawks), Jordan Binnington (St. Louis Blues), Darcy Kuemper (Colorado Avalanche), and Mackenzie Blackwood (New Jersey Devils) round out the other top contenders vying for spots.
“It’s really exciting,” Hart said. “Obviously, a dream to play for your country at the Olympic level. That’s obviously a goal of mine and I’m working really hard to get there, for sure.”
Getting back to Hart’s ‘foundation’
After dazzling in his first full NHL season with the Flyers in 2019-20, posting a .914 save percentage and 2.42 goals-against average over 43 games, Hart regressed in his sophomore year. But for former NHL goaltender and ESPN analyst Kevin Weekes, Hart’s .877 SV% and 3.67 GAA in 2020-21 now serves as a “blip on the radar screen” as Hart mounts a rebound in an Olympic year.
In 16 starts this season, Hart has posted a 2.90 GAA and .911 save percentage. But beyond the statistics, Weekes noticed that Hart looks “outstanding” on his post play, in his ability to stay square on bad-angle shots, and in his knack for knowing when to challenge shooters.
“What you’re seeing from him now is exactly what you saw from him since he was 16,” Weekes said. “So he’s on trend for what we’ve all come to know and expect from him and it’s pretty remarkable.”
Hart’s reset is a product of the work he put in this past summer with his personal goalie, coach Dustin Schwartz, who also coaches the position for the Edmonton Oilers, and Flyers goalie coach Kim Dillabaugh. While the team’s defensive struggles snowballed and Hart lost some of the efficiencies within his game, Schwartz concluded that Hart started to “overwork” throughout portions of last season.
“It’s like golf, right?” Schwartz said. “When you hit a driver, you’re having a tough round, you want to get an extra five, 10 yards out of it, you swing harder and you get less out of it. I think that was a little bit of getting away from Carter’s foundation, which is his reads and trusting his positioning and trusting his feet and that level of confidence to be able to skate real well and be set early on pucks. Be consistent in his setup and his tracking. [Hart] just tried to do more and more and more, and sometimes you get a little bit less out of yourself.”
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This summer, Schwartz said he worked with Hart to concentrate on three or four elements of his game while “not overdoing it.” Those facets included working in traffic, post play, and timing in transition into reverse vertical-horizontal, a position in which a goalie’s pad against the post is horizontal on the ice and the back leg is vertical in an effort to prevent short-side scoring.
The structure of the offseason aligned with that of summers past — start with the basics, then add layers focusing on different situations and skill sets. Alongside Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry, whose hot start could potentially add him into the Canada picture, Hart said he had a “productive” offseason with Schwartz.
“Every summer, Schwartzy’s always prepared,” Hart said. “He works harder than anybody that I’ve ever met on that side of the game. He’s a very smart hockey individual. So I’m lucky that I have him as a friend and as my goalie coach back home. It was a great summer for myself and Jarrs and the three of us, it was a lot of fun working together.”
Where Hart stands among Team Canada contenders
With the start of the Olympic tournament just two months away, what will it take for a 23-year-old goaltender to leapfrog the veterans? Hockey Canada and Blues general manager Doug Armstrong will make that determination when he assembles the roster for the upcoming Games.
Price, 34, leads the way in terms of experience. At the 2014 Winter Olympics, he finished the tournament undefeated in five games with a 0.60 GAA and .972 SV% as Canada won gold..
However, Price hasn’t suited up for an NHL game since the Stanley Cup Final last summer and isn’t expected to return to action before Dec. 25. He spent the offseason recovering from a hip injury and knee surgery and continues to rehab. Before the start of the season, Price voluntarily joined the NHL’s player assistance program for substance use and only returned to the Canadiens on Nov. 10.
While Fleury, 37, (17 GP, .908 SV%, 2.96 GAA) and Binnington, 28, (16 GP, .912 SV%, 2.80 GAA) are the veteran frontrunners alongside Price, both Hart and Blackwood are also in contention.
“I think you want to have a young guy in the mix for the Olympics and international competition,” former Flyers goaltender and ESPN analyst Brian Boucher said. “You want them to have the experience of being around it. You don’t want their first go-around of being a go-to guy, having it be their first time there.”
The respective paths of Hart and Blackwood have converged at numerous points over the past six years. The duo first met at a Hockey Canada goaltending camp in June of 2015 when Hart was 16 and Blackwood, 18.
Less than six months after receiving NHL call-ups on the same day, Dec. 17, 2018, Hart and Blackwood represented Canada at the 2019 IIHF World Championship in Slovakia, where the two were roommates.
Even when Hart had a down season in 2020-21, Blackwood did, too. He finished the season with a career-low .902 SV%.
“We both struggled last year,” Blackwood said. “Last year was a bit of a disaster for a lot of people. Thankfully this year, we’ve returned to a little bit of a more normal schedule and I think you can see that’s helping a lot of people get back to themselves.”
In Blackwood, Hart has a friend who can relate to similar experiences coming up through the NHL at a young age.
“I think we just really got along right from the get-go and he’s a great goalie and a good friend,” Hart said. “It’d be pretty cool if me and him were playing together in February at the Olympics.”
But for now, Hart isn’t looking beyond his current responsibilities with the Flyers. After all, according to Schwartz, Hart’s performance in Philadelphia will determine his fate.
“I’m sure there’s always the spark and the talk, the Olympics and what a great feather in the cap if that comes to fruition, but at the end of the day, your job of being prepared to play, giving the Flyers a chance to win every night, of stopping the puck on a consistent basis is what’s gonna open up and drive that opportunity forward.”