Carter Hart’s first pro season hasn’t been stellar, but Flyers GM Ron Hextall isn’t worried | Sam Carchidi
The goalie's early AHL numbers aren't impressive, but he's going through the typical growing pains of a player in his first pro season.
Goaltender Carter Hart isn't exactly tearing up the AHL with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, the Flyers' top minor-league affiliate, and the whispers have started.
What if he isn't as good as scouts say?
What if his almost-incomprehensible junior stats were just a mirage?
What if he isn't going to be the elite goalie the Flyers have been trying to find for decades?
Take a deep breath. Exhale. Repeat.
And take a look at these numbers:
Carey Price had an .896 save percentage with the AHL's Hamilton Bulldogs before he was called up for good by the Montreal Canadiens in 2008-09. And, yeah, he's turned out all right.
Pekka Rinne, a longtime star in Nashville, had a 2.82 goals-against average and pedestrian .904 save percentage in his first AHL season with Milwaukee in 2005-06. And now he's one of the NHL's best goaltenders, if not the best.
Ben Bishop's AHL save percentage was at .897 when he got his first NHL call-up, and he's had a quality career.
There are examples of standout NHL goalies who did well in their first AHL season (see John Gibson, Tuukka Rask, and Jonathan Quick, among others), but most who were Hart's age, 20, took time to blossom in their first professional year.
For that reason, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall is not alarmed by Hart's slow start. Like Hart, it took Hextall a while to get adjusted to the pro game, and he turned out to be one of the best goalies in Flyers history.
Hextall said Hart isn't just facing much better players than in the Western Hockey League, but is also finding his way off the ice.
"Whether it's a goalie or a player, it's a big jump," Hextall said the other day. "Whether it's Jon Quick, Jonathan Bernier, Carter Hart, Travis Sanheim, Jake Muzzin … you see it year after year and year. When a kid dominates junior or college and goes to the American Hockey League, it's a huge step. People don't understand it.
"First of all, it's a lifestyle thing. You're doing everything on your own: your banking, your apartment, renting furniture, your cooking, your laundry. You don't know how to do it. It's part of the growing-up process, and it's not an easy adjustment in life."
At 20, Hextall moved back and forth between leagues and teams eight times during his first pro season.
"And it was the same thing for me as everybody else. Getting your own apartment and you're on your own," he said. "It was like, 'Whoa. Where's my billet? Where's Mom and Dad?' It was a head-spinning year for me, but, quite frankly, I grew up."
Entering Saturday, Hart had a 5-3-1 record with a 3.37 goals-against average and .890 save percentage in 11 games, and he had been pulled in two of his appearances. Hextall has watched him in person several times.
"He's looked good. He's made adjustments from one game to the next, and he's a quick study," said Hextall. The GM would like the goaltender to play a full year in the AHL but hasn't ruled out a call-up this year, saying it depends on how the Flyers' goalies perform, injuries, and how Hart progresses.
"Things probably haven't gone exactly the way he felt they would, but as an organization, we didn't expect him to go in there and that everything would be great every day. That's just a reality of turning pro. But we've seen progress in him."
Goalie Alex Lyon, who was Hart's teammate with the Phantoms this season before being promoted to the Flyers, said going from Yale to the AHL was an eye-opener.
"If I could stop two or three Grade-A chances at Yale, we were going to win that game, say, 3-1. All the other shots were from the outside," he said. "In the AHL, you saw at least 10 Grade-A chances a game."
Hart feels the same way about going from the junior level — where he had a 1.60 GAA and ridiculous .947 save percentage last season — to the AHL, where the game is much faster, the execution is better, and there are many more difficult saves.
"It's definitely been an adjustment, but I'm starting to get things down and things are starting to trend in the right direction," Hart said.
Off the ice, Hart is getting acclimated to not having his former billet, Parker Fowlds, do his cooking and laundry. "Our nutritionist was here the other day and we got a chance to go to the grocery store together to help me shop and eat healthy," he said. "She gave me a couple recipes — I like making stir fry with chicken — so I can start cooking healthy."
As for his teammates, Hart said he was "starting to feel more comfortable with the guys."
"At first, it can be a little uncomfortable coming to the rink with a bunch of guys you don't know, but we've had some good team-bonding experiences and I've started to get to know the guys a lot better and I can just be myself now when I come to the rink."
Hart is taking his rookie pro season in stride.
"I know things aren't always going to go your way. I had a similar experience when I came into the WHL at 16 years old," he said. "I didn't have a great start to my first season, and after Christmas I started to get a feel for that league and I turned things around. I won the starting job at 16.
"And now, it's almost like you're starting all over again, going from junior to pro. It's a different game, but it almost feels like the same process I went through at 16 that I'm now going through at 20."
To borrow a line from the team that shares the Wells Fargo Center with the Flyers: Trust the process, folks.