Pick a number. Any number. Odds are you’ll find the same name at the top of the sorted statistical category for goalies: Carter Hart.
He just wrapped up the most dominant statistical season that the Canadian Hockey League has ever seen, as well as one of the best careers in recent memory. While Hart’s final year in Everett ended short of the ultimate goal of a Memorial Cup victory, it’s still a season for the ages.
The Silvertips announced what was widely expected Tuesday: Hart was called up to the Philadelphia Flyers’ AHL club. The move up means 2017-18 was likely the last time Hart will be wearing dark green and white on the ice.
With that in mind, it’s time to look back at just how historic Hart’s 2017-18 season was, how he compares to elite goalies before him, and what stands in his way on the path to the National Hockey League.
A Special Season
The numbers look like they’re made up, but they’re very real.
Hart stopped 94.7% of the shots against him during the 2017-18 season. Opposing teams only scored an average of 1.60 goals per game on him. Hart shutout opponents seven times in a season shortened by an early illness, and international competition.
Each of those numbers are best in all of Canadian major juniors among goalies who appeared in at least 20 games. That covers the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League, and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
His stat line features more shutouts than regulation losses in a season. That’s just another glimpse at the excellence Hart displayed every night.
Hart appeared in 41 regular season games, once in relief (Sept. 30th). He put up quality starts in 35 of those 40 starts, meaning he either stopped at least 91.7% of the shots against him or allowed two goals or fewer in a game.
He tied the WHL record for most shutouts in a career with 26.
Nobody in CHL history ever played in 20 games and saved more than 94.1% of shots against them in a season — until Hart did so in 2017-18. I could go on, but you get the idea.
That loaded resume is why Hart won the CHL’s Goaltender of the Year Award for 2017-18, and made history again in the process. Nobody won the award twice since it was first created until Hart did this year. He previously won it in 2015-16 after his first season as the Tips’ starter. He was a finalist the year after. When he received the honor, Hart was quick to put the focus back on his teammates. (Quote via Everett’s official team website)
“It’s a huge honor to win this award for a second time and it’s reflective of the great year we had in Everett,” said Hart. “It was great because a lot of things were accomplished – not just on an individual level, but on a team level as well. This was a special group that came together and had a huge run in the playoffs. We had fun going to the rink every day and made a lot of memories together as teammates. I’ll never forget these guys, who created the tightest group I’ve ever been with in my WHL career. I’ll never forget my coaches, teammates, billet parent Parker Folds, and roommate Riley Sutter who was like a brother to me. They all made this moment possible.”
Hart and history go hand in hand. After all, nobody won the Del Wilson Memorial Trophy for WHL Goaltender of the Year three straight times until Hart did in May. He also was the first Silvtertip to win the Four Broncos Memorial Trophy as the WHL’s Player of the Year. The last goalie to win both in a season was Darcy Kuemper in 2010-11.
While earning awards and putting up numbers at a clip the league has literally never seen, Hart took a break to become a hero in his home country.
The Sherwood Park, Alberta native helped lead Canada to a gold medal at the 2018 World Junior Championships. He shined by stopping 93% of the shots he faced, and allowing an average of 1.81 goals per game in the tournament. Those numbers came against the best players in his age group from around the world.
Hart admitted during the season that the Philadelphia Flyers, who drafted him 48th overall in 2016, sent him back to Everett with one mission this year. “They said just to come back here and be the best junior hockey player — not just the best junior hockey goalie, but the best junior hockey player.” Arguably: mission accomplished.
The one nitpick anyone could point to is the end result of the season.
Hart and the Silvertips’ postseason ended two wins shy of playing for the Memorial Cup for the first time ever. (hat tip to Jesse Geleynse of the Everett Herald for the postgame quote)
“It’s not the end of the spectrum we wanted to be on, but I thought we gave it our all the whole series and the whole year,” Hart said. “Right now it’s disappointing, but at the same time we can all be proud of what did here. We hadn’t made it past the second round in 10-plus years. We’re making strides in the right direction.”
It doesn’t take much effort to envision a more fairy-tale ending for Hart & his teammates. The Tips lost twice in overtime, and once 1-0 in the series against Swift Current.
Hart did not have his other-worldly save percentage in the series, but he still stopped 91.9% of the shots he faced from a Broncos squad that was the third-best scoring team in the WHL.
Despite obvious disappointment in the end, Hart and the Tips still have a lot to be proud of. The organization made the playoffs for the 15th straight year, finishing at the top of the Western Conference and third overall in the league standings in the process.
This year’s playoff campaign also tied for the longest in franchise history, and marked the first time Everett played for an appearance in the Memorial Cup since its inaugural season in 2003-04.
Hart’s Place in History
What should be clear by now is a fact that Everett and WHL fans have known for the past three years: Hart is a special player in net. The question now turns to Hart’s place place among the best goalies in WHL history. (stick tap to Jim Riley for this quote)
Gregg Drinnan, the former sports editor at daily newspapers in Regina and Kamloops who has covered the leage for more than 40 years, knows best-ever questions rarely supply definitive answers.
“The numbers indicate that Hart is the best of all time,” Drinnan said. “I don’t care what team/systems you play behind, you still have to make the saves. His positioning and his calmness, I think, are remarkable.
“I always put Ed Staniowski (who led Regina to the Memorial Cup championship in 1974) and John Davidson (drafted fifth overall in1973 before jumping directly to the St. Louis Blues) up there. I am prepared to put Hart above them.”
That’s a big statement. But if we compare Hart to some recent notable goaltenders who went from the WHL to the NHL, Hart has put up better numbers as a starter in juniors than all three of them.
Carey Price stopped 0.2% more shots in his first year as a starter than Hart did. That’s the only statistic where Hart does not reign supreme over the other three.
Before we broaden out the comparison to all of Canadian major junior history, there’s an important piece of background information we need to point out. The QMJHL is the only one of the three CHL member leagues that’s tracked save percentage from the beginning.
Through a combination of the OHL, QMJHL and WHL websites, as well as quanthockey.com, we publicly have save percentage statistics from 1995-96 on for all three leagues. That’s 22 seasons of information and goaltenders to judge.
With that in mind, we’ll be looking at how each of Hart’s seasons stack up to history by using three standard statistics for netminders: save percentage (SV%), goals against average (GAA) and shutouts (SO).
We’ll only consider goalies who appeared in at least 30 regular season games in a year. This should help eliminate any statistical outliers, and provide a decent sample size for each goalie in any particular season.
First, here are Hart’s numbers:
As you can see — Hart’s numbers got better every single season from 2014-15 through 2017-18. He also faced more shots per game each season, with the largest increase coming this past season.
For comparison purposes, I went through and eliminated any goalie at the CHL level in the past 22 seasons who did not have a GAA or SV% that was at least equal to Hart’s 2014-15 numbers.
So to make the initial cut, a goalie needed to play in at least 30 games in one season and post either a 2.29 GAA or 0.915 SV% during that same year.
There are 255 CHL goaltenders over the last 22 seasons who qualify. Of those 255 players, only 48 had one season where they had a better GAA, SV% and more shutouts than Hart did in just his first full season. Remember: Hart was a backup in that 2014-15 season.
If you keep that same initial pool of 255 players and start comparing them to Hart’s numbers from three seasons as a starter, you start to see just how unique of a career he’s had at the CHL level.
Not a single CHL goalie in the last 22 years put up a season that can match Hart’s 2017-18 results.
There is one goalie who put up a better GAA than Hart’s 1.60: Kelly Guard allowed an average of 1.56 goals in 2003-04 for the Kelowna Rockets.
Guard and several goalies had individual seasons with more than Hart’s seven shutouts, but they never had both a GAA and SV% that also topped the Everett netminder’s 2017-18 totals.
As you see above, the stellar numbers stretch back to Hart’s draft+1 season too. Only three goaltenders ever had seasons that were superior to Hart’s 2016-17 numbers.
Hart will bring the best statistical resume we’ve ever seen from a CHL goalie to the next step up in competition.
He exits Everett as the all-time leader in wins and shutouts with the Tips. But when Hart leaves Snohomish County he’ll be packing up something that’s arguably more valuable than any place in the record books. (h/t to Jesse Geleynse again)
“This group right here is the tightest group I ever played on [and] it’s the most fun year I’ve had,” Hart said. “Just going to the rink every day with these guys makes it so much fun and so much easier. The grind can be hard coming to the rink every day and working out and skating can be a lot, especially in a long season. But with the group of guys we had coming to the rink was so much fun and these are memories that I’ll cherish with me the rest of my life.”
Hart’s Path Forward
The big question for Hart is where he plays next year.
He will undoubtedly turn pro this summer. Flyers GM Ron Hextall told reporters Hart will join their AHL club Lehigh Valley for the rest of the playoffs.
Despite joining the Phantoms, Hart did not play. He just wrapped up a season in which he played 72 games across pre-season, regular season, World Juniors, the Russia-Canada series and the WHL Playoffs. This time in the AHL was the proverbial learning experience for Hart — just like an identical call up last year.
Beyond the Calder Cup Playoffs: Hart will turn 20 in August, and then go through training camp with the NHL club. That’s where things get interesting.
The young goalie told Joseph Santoliquito of PhillyVoice what he has planned for his next act.
“I’m going to miss Everett. I grew up in Everett, it’s a place that I’ll always remember. But I’m ready take another step. I’m ready to play in the NHL.”
That’s a mindset any organization wants from any player, but particularly a franchise like the Flyers which is starving for a goaltending savior.
Before Hart ever publicly stated his mission for next year, the Flyers made it clear he will get the chance to make the NHL right away.
During Philadelphia’s exit interviews, Hextall was asked about whether Hart has a chance to make the team.
“I’m comfortable where we’re at with our goaltending. [Michal Neuvirth] had some injury issues. I’m excited about Neuvy’s commitment,” Hextall said. “We got our kids coming. We got the kids up at Lehigh. We feel very comfortable with where we’re at. In saying that, we need some growth.”
Hextall clearly left the door open for Hart. As we’ve shown above, the Albertan is a special talent. He should not be doubted.
While we won’t know how this plays out until mid-September, it’s currently more likely Hart starts the 2018-19 season in Lehigh Valley than in Philadelphia for a few reasons.
- Hextall is a very patient GM. He takes his time letting prospects develop, particularly at the AHL level. Hextall has said in the past that a bit of extra time in the AHL has never hurt anyone’s development. Current Flyers fans have seen that approach with the team’s budding young defense corps (particularly Sam Morin and Robert Hagg, who each have spent three seasons in Allentown).
- The increase in competition level. While the CHL is home to a lot of future NHL players, the speed of play is a notch or two below the AHL, which in turn is a notch or slower than the NHL. How quickly Hart can adapt to making his reads, movements and decisions at the faster pace of a new level will be key.
- Hart’s performance. This is the wild card. We’ve shown above that Hart is a special player among his age group. Hart is the kind of talent who could come into training camp or Lehigh Valley, show a maturity and poise that is far beyond what’s expected of a 20-year-old and force Hextall’s hand. The other side of the coin is Hart could initially struggle with the faster timing and increased deception at the AHL level. We won’t know until camp and the games begin.
What we do know are Hextall’s actions and words are potential clues about the rough timeline the organization has in place for Hart to reach South Broad Street.
Clue No. 1: Contracts
Here is the contract situation with Philadelphia’s current goaltenders.
All contract information courtesy of CapFriendly
This is no accident. The Flyers clearly have worked to make sure that when they decide Hart is ready, nobody will be blocking his path.
They have five goalies currently without contracts. With Hart turning pro, Philadelphia will need to clear some space in either the main crease or the blue paint in Lehigh Valley.
- If the Flyers re-sign Petr Mrzaek, they would have to give the Detroit Red Wings a 3rd round pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft (this was a condition of the trade that brought Mrazek to Philadelphia). Due to Mrazek’s expiring contract, bringing him back even on a qualifying offer would cost them $4.15 million against the cap. He had a 3.22 GAA and 0.891 SV% in Orange and Black. Due to his performance, contract cost, and the potential loss of a draft pick: he’s most likely gone.
- Alex Lyon probably gets re-signed. He saw some extended time with the Flyers when Brian Elliott and Neuvirth went down due to injuries. Lyon will either be part of an AHL tandem, or the NHL back-up if Philadelphia trades or releases Neuvirth due to his injury history.
- Anthony Stolarz is coming off two separate surgeries on the same knee this season. He played in four total games. However Stolarz was an AHL All-Star in 2016-17, and Hextall protected him from Vegas in the expansion draft. We don’t publicly know the details of his physical rehabilitation progress. His fate is uncertain.
- Dustin Tokarski was traded for in October as an AHL depth move while Stolarz was recovering from September knee surgery. He likely becomes a free agent, unless the Flyers let both Neuvirth and Stolarz go.
- John Muse was the Flyers goalie at the ECHL level, but moved up to Lehigh Valley due to injuries to Elliott, Neuvirth & Stolarz. He could be brought back for the ECHL team.
- If you’re curious about Felix Sandstrom: he just signed his Entry Level Contract in late March. Heading into 2017-18, the organization believed it would be his last season in Sweden before turning pro in the U.S. However he had an abdominal injury in October and wasn’t healthy and playing until late January. With the sheer numbers game in the NHL and AHL, Philadelphia will likely loan Sandstrom back to his Swedish Hockey League team for one more year.
The much bigger contract observation is the two goalies at the NHL level (Elliott & Neuvirth) both have contracts expiring after the upcoming 2018-19 season. That’s pretty clearly by design.
This would allow Hart to get a year of seasoning in the minors, and then Philadelphia could slide him in as the starter for 2019-20. The Flyers could also just as easily bring one of Elliott or Neuvirth back (or another bridge guy in) on a 1-year deal if Hart needs more time, or if they want to ease him in as an NHL back-up before handing him the reigns full-time.
If Hart makes the Flyers out of camp and Philadelphia does not work out a deal with another team for Elliott or Neuvirth, either one could conceivably get bought out.
All of that would depend on Hart’s performance and progress in the eyes of his chief evaluator, which brings us to our second clue.
Clue No. 2: Hextall Himself
The similarities between Hart and Hextall are a bit eerie at first.
Both Canadians were drafted by the Flyers out of the WHL. Hart — like Hextall — will go to training camp as a 20-year-old with ambitions of jumping from juniors to the NHL. Hart showed a flash of fire on the ice when an opponent slashed him. That’s a characteristic Hextall is known for, albeit in a much greater sense than Hart’s case of self-defense.
Hextall was sent down to the minors after camp. Years later he confessed that he was disappointed by the result.
However, the Flyers Hall of Famer has said repeatedly that “Quite frankly, the two years that I spent in the American League got me to the point where I was sure I could be a No. 1 goaltender at the NHL level.”
While each player and each goalie’s development varies because no two people or situations are exactly alike, we should not just dismiss Hextall’s own experience. After all the final call about where Hart starts next season will be up to the former netminder.
Hextall is regarded as the last elite homegrown goaltender the Flyers had (all due respect to Brian Boucher, Roman Cechmanek, Antero Nittymaki and The One The Flyers Gave Up On Too Soon). Hextall knows that. He also knows the spotlight that will follow Hart wherever he goes will be almost blinding.
Fans view Hart as the best hope to be the ‘chosen one’ to end the franchise’s goaltending woes — even though he has not played in a true professional game yet.
That’s another reason why Hextall will need to be blown away in September in order for Hart to suit up with the parent club on opening night.
The Flyers GM is already extremely conservative when it comes to letting prospects ‘marinate’ in the American League. Once he calls a player up to the big club, he does not want to send them back down.
So what exactly does Hextall look for in goalies before bringing them to the world’s best league? Lets go back in time to 2010.
Hextall was Assistant General Manager of the Los Angeles Kings. He ran their AHL team, and was overseeing the developments of both young goalies Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier.
At the time Hextall said playing in the minors presents a different set of challenges that can make the game more difficult than the NHL, despite the lower talent level.
“As a goaltender, you see more quality chances at the AHL level than you do at the NHL level. Obviously, the shooters aren’t as good, but that’s why the training is so good. Because you go through a lot of situations that [Bernier] might have 10, 12, maybe 15 or 18 good scoring chances against him a game. You come to the NHL and it’s not quite that much. So it’s repetition, repetition, repetition, and that’s part of the learning curve to become a top player.”
The general message is a familiar one. ‘Practice makes perfect.’ But there is truth in the details.
The AHL normally has a larger number of shots allowed due to a variety of factors, but largely because the quality of defense played at that level is much lower than in the NHL. Like Hextall said, you face more good scoring chances each game because of that.
While those comments focus on repetition, it doesn’t mention something Hart already has down pat: technique.
Hart clearly mastered his current level of competition with calm, calculated movements that leave him almost always squared up to make a save. As a result, he’s rarely out of position and doesn’t need to make those sprawling saves you see on highlight shows — though he’s proven he can stop pucks that way, too.
But even special players like him need to make adjustments.
Cat Silverman of The Athletic recently put together a fantastic breakdown of Hart’s technique from a goalie’s perspective, including several things he’ll likely need to work on before he’s ‘ready’ for the NHL
One of the things she says Hart (and all goalies, for that matter) need to learn before reaching the top level is the mental side of the game. Specifically: not thinking or dwelling on things during and after games.
It’s something that Hextall also heavily touted to NESN while helping both Bernier and Quick.
Hextall … said helping both Bernier and Quick with the mental side of the game has been the most important role he’s played in their young careers. “The mental side of it, I talk to both, whether they’re going through bad times or good times.
“It’s really the mental part that young goalies have to figure out. The learning curve of having a bad game and people being down on you and you have to bounce back the next game. Letting in a bad goal early in the game, you have to bounce back and use it as motivation. So those are the aspects of the position that are the hardest to get by, and I think both guys have shown signs of positive mental growth.
“They say goaltending is 80 percent mental and 20 physical, and that’s not far from the truth.”
Those comments from Hextall came during Quick’s first full season in the NHL, and Bernier’s second and final season with LA’s minor league team. Quick was 25, while Bernier was a few months away from turning 22.
The internal part of goaltending is something Hextall has previously admitted he struggled with, too. Here’s what he told Sports Illustrated in 1989.
Hextall accepted the  Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ MVP and then, when alone, broke down and cried.
“It’s a terrible feeling, losing the last game of any year,” he says. “A lonely feeling. Maybe I’ll mellow out as I get older, but each year, no matter how far we go, it still feels the same. It kills the first few weeks of my summer.
“Every goal I give up, I ask myself why I didn’t do anything different. Even when you know that you didn’t have a hope in heck, you still think there’s something you could have done.”
Hextall won the award for playoff MVP as a rookie when he backstopped the Flyers to a Stanley Cup Final Game 7 against Wayne Gretzky and the loaded Edmonton Oilers.
He was 22 at the time.
Hextall knows pressure, and thrived in it when he reached the NHL. He needs to know by the end of September how Hart copes with it, and how Hart reacts when he struggles.
Interestingly enough, the 19-year-old Hart shared a recent moment mirroring part of young Hextall’s story. (Quote via PhillyVoice)
“I’m my biggest critic, and nothing will change that,” Hart said. “I blamed myself after the [WHL game No. 6] loss. But I have learned to find more of a balance though. I don’t get too high or too low on myself. I feel I’m ready to take this next step. My job next fall is to go into camp and do my job, and that’s to stop pucks.
“I have to concern myself with the things that I can control, and that’s keep a simple and clear mindset—and that’s stop pucks. I can’t think about what other people think, I have to concern myself with what I think. Anyone who knows me, they know that I want to be an NHL goalie. I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen.””
Quite the mature response from a teenager.
It’s an example that Hart has the attitude for success.
We’ve seen the top notch technique.
Hart has the numbers that history can’t match.
He’s at the door to his dream. The bright orange light is visible on the other side.
Hart wants a chance to kick the door down. He wants to prove he can be on top of any chart, at any level. It will be fun to see how quickly that happens.
All we can do now is pick a number, and wait.