Claude Giroux, the NHL’s third-leading point producer over the last nine seasons, is the Flyers’ heart. Sean Couturier is their soul.
But Carter Hart, the unflappable 21-year-old goalie whose potential makes Flyers fans giddy, is their most important player.
Hart burst onto the scene last December when he was called up from the AHL’s Phantoms. He equaled the NHL record for most consecutive wins (eight) for a goalie under 21 and finished with a .917 save percentage and 2.83 goals-against average.
“He made a huge impact on our group,” center Scott Laughton said during training camp. “We were struggling quite a bit before he came up and he kind of steadied us and gave us really good goaltending and really good consistency.”
Having Hart from the start of the season almost guarantees the Flyers will be much better than a year ago.
“We don’t want to put too much pressure on him,” left winger James van Riemsdyk said. “He’s still a young kid and this will be his first full NHL season, but obviously he did great things for us last season.”
And with some NHL seasoning already on his resume, even greater things are expected this season.
“I know some people are writing us off, but we have a good squad,” new center Kevin Hayes said. “Good players and we have a great goalie.”
Hayes had only watched Hart play in a few preseason games as his teammate, but he had seen enough to give him a gaudy description.
Hart shrugs off the compliments and the expectations. He speaks in a tone barely above a whisper. But the soft voice doesn’t mask his confidence, built from international success and ridiculously dominant seasons in the Western Hockey League.
So it’s not surprising he wants to play as many games as possible this season.
“Sixty would be great,” he said, adding he’ll do whatever is best for the team.
Hart has quick reflexes and is a student of the game. He has worked with a sports psychologist since he was about 11 years old and it seems to have helped him keep his composure during heated moments around the net.
“The best quality I think he has is his temperament,” van Riemsdyk said. “I think that’s what allows him to have success and continue to grow. He’s such a sponge and he’s confident in himself. He knows the things he does to make him good and the things he wants to work on to make him better. He’s got a lot of awareness for a kid who’s only 21 years old.”
Bernie Parent, the Hall of Fame goaltender and Flyers icon, said he loves Hart’s athleticism and demeanor on the ice. “He always seems in control,” he said. “He doesn’t get rattled.”
Hart helped the Flyers make a playoff push in the second half of last season.
“He’s definitely what everyone expected he’d be,” right winger Travis Konecny said. “For us, it’s our job to just make it as easy as possible for him because I don’t want him to have all that pressure weighing on him going into the season. Just have fun and do your job and we’re going to help him out.”
Last season, a turnover-prone defense didn’t help much as Hart saw a barrage of high-quality shots.
Hart trained this summer near his home in suburban Edmonton. He was in the weight room, spent lots of time on the ice, and even did yoga, which has become a staple in his workout routine.
He changed from his old breakfast (three eggs, two pieces of toast, chocolate milk) — he said there’s too much bacteria in eggs — and he learned he was lactose intolerant and stopped eating dairy products. His new breakfast: toast topped with cashew butter and bananas. He also added a fourth meal to his day and gained 6 pounds, bulking up to 191.
“I added some muscle, added some durability,” he said. “I feel really healthy in the net, really strong.”
Playing 31 games with the Flyers last season “made me realize what it takes to go through an NHL season and it’s only going to help me moving forward,” Hart said.
New coach Alain Vigneault liked what he saw from Hart during training camp. In three appearances against NHL competition, Hart had a 0.44 goals-against average (gulp) and a .982 save percentage (double gulp), stopping 56 of 57 shots.
“He’s a young man who works at his art, works real hard with [goalie coach Kim Dillabaugh] on a regular basis to try to improve all areas of his game,” Vigneault said. “He’s a young man on the upswing, and in my mind he’s only going to get better.”
Vigneault said he has been “one of the lucky coaches. When I came back in the league and ended up in Vancouver, [Roberto] Luongo was a proven veteran, one of the best in the league. And in New York, I had another proven veteran in [Henrik] Lundqvist, so I’ve been very fortunate. Now I have a good young goaltender with a veteran goaltender [Brian Elliott] who in my mind should be a real strong duo for our team.”
With all due respect to Elliott, a solid goalie when he is healthy, the leader of the duo should be the baby-faced kid who, based on his off-ice contributions last year, seems on a mission to do as much charity work as possible in the community.
He also seems on a mission to be among the NHL’s elite goaltenders someday.
Maybe sooner rather than later.
Many top goalies, such as Pekka Rinne, Sergei Bobrovsky, Henrik Lundqvist, and Ben Bishop, weren’t in the NHL at 21, Hart’s current age. But here are some notable NHL goalies and their numbers during seasons that started when they were 21.