If measured by awards and stats, a case could be made that no goaltender in the history of the Canadian Hockey League had a superior junior career to Flyers prospect Carter Hart.
He's the only two-time winner of the CHL Goaltender of the Year Award, and the Western Hockey League's only three-time winner of the Del Wilson Trophy (WHL Goaltender of the Year). Hart also won the Four Broncos Trophy (WHL Most Valuable Player) and was a finalist for CHL Player of the Year honors last season. Internationally for Team Canada, he collected gold (2018) and silver (2017) medals at the World Junior Championships.
"I think if you just worry about developing your skills and working on the little details, other goals will take care of themselves such as awards like that. You don't want to put your focus on any awards or any titles. Your focus needs to be on what you're doing. Over the course of the last year, I made some subtle adjustments that helped improve my game," Hart said.
The 20-year-old netminder now begins an all-new challenge as his first professional hockey season looms. Most likely, it will be spent in the American Hockey League with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Hart is coming to training camp with the intention of convincing the Flyers that he is NHL-ready now. However, the rookie realizes the Flyers have veterans Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth on hand, with Alex Lyon and Anthony Stolarz (now healthy after missing the 2017 playoffs and nearly the entire 2017-18 season due to injury) as options.
"I had a little bit of time [at practice] with the Phantoms the last couple years at the end of the season but this, really, is my first season. There's a lot of good goalies here, proven guys. I think there's things I can learn from them, but my main focus has to be on myself. I think when you focus that way, it's something you can control and whatever happens, happens," Hart said.
By today's NHL standards, Hart (listed at 6-foot-2, 185 pounds) is strictly of average size. There is always room for a young goalie, even a dominant one at the junior level, to further sharpen his puck-tracking skills and in staying up longer before dropping to the ice. Plays develop faster, the shooters are deadlier upstairs and to the short side, there is more (and bigger) traffic around the net and it is harder to recover from a positional overplay, a rebound left in the slot or a puckhandling mistake.
Due to the physical but especially the mental challenges inherent to the job, goaltenders typically require the longest pre-NHL development of any position. While there are some notable exceptions, most NHL goalies take multiple seasons beyond their junior careers to emerge as regulars at the top level.
No goaltender drafted in the Flyers organizational history has ever made a direct jump from junior hockey to the NHL. The closest exception would be 1999 first-round pick Maxime Ouellet, who appeared in two early season (one start) games for the Flyers at age 19 in 2000-01 before being returned to his junior team. Ouellet, however, spent most of his subsequent pro hockey career in the American Hockey League. Conversely, former Flyers goalie Steve Mason broke into the NHL full-time with the Columbus Blue Jackets at age 20 (after a three-game AHL stint) and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL Rookie of the Year in 2008-09 but then struggled mightily for most of the next three-plus seasons.
While history can be a useful guideline, every goaltender will rise, stagnate or fall on his own timetable and by the merits of his own play. In a best-case scenario, Hart could be NHL-ready at a quicker-than-average pace even if his rookie pro season is spent with the Phantoms. However, there is no specific timetable in place for his NHL arrival, especially before he plays a single game. Even at the AHL level, playing time won't be handed to him based solely on his junior merits. Hart will have to compete for his starts, whether it's with the Phantoms or Flyers.
In terms of positioning, reflexes and calm under pressure, Hart is exceptionally mature for a 20-year-old and is a tireless student of the game. Nevertheless, there will be adjustments to come as he learns to read the play at the NHL level. For example, he is likely going to quickly be tested on high shots and jostled around the net to see if he can be rattled. He was rather unflappable in his junior days but the stakes get higher now.
"Carter's got some special qualities. His ability, that's one thing. But mentally, he's also very strong. He wants to get better, and asks a lot of questions," Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said.
Hart has already established a strong rapport with Flyers goaltending development coach Brady Robinson as well as Flyers goalie coach Kim Dillabaugh (with whom Hart has also gotten to work the last three Julys at Development camp).
"Brady and Dilly have been great. They've definitely helped me with some things to work on that I've incorporated into my game. Just small things mostly. I've gotten work with some really good coaches here, in Everett and at home around Edmonton, so I'm fortunate," Hart said.
While playing for Everett, Hart sported uniform number 70. He wore No. 31 for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships as well as with the Phantoms. With the Flyers at Development Camp, Rookie Camp and Training Camp the last three years, he has worn No. 79.
Hart plans to keep No. 79 as his Flyers number. He'll continue to wear No. 31 with the Phantoms.
The reason why Hart has opted to keep No. 79 is that two young fans he got to know in Everett, one of whom is autistic, regularly wore No. 79 Flyers jerseys to the Silvertips games. As a result, his NHL training camp number took on meaning for Hart, and he'll keep it rather than requesting a more typical "goalie number" such as No. 33 or No. 35.
At the recent NHLPA Rookie Showcase, however, Hart was given a No. 31 Flyers jersey to wear. Although that was likely based on his WJC and Phantoms number, it caused some confusion among longtime Flyers fans. No Flyers goaltender has worn No. 31 since defending Vezina Trophy winner Pelle Lindbergh perished in a car crash in Nov. 1985.
The number has never been officially retired by the Flyers but it has been a 33-year franchise tradition upheld by the team equipment staff not to reassign No. 31 to another goaltender. The tradition continues.
Longtime Phantoms goaltender Neil Little sported No. 31 with the AHL club, specifically to honor Lindbergh's memory. The idea had been suggested by Phantoms coach Bill Barber, who was a Flyers teammate of Lindbergh's in 1982-83 and 1983-84. Little won two Calder Cup championships (1997-98 and 2004-05) with the team while sporting the number.
No Flyers player, whether goalie or position player, has ever worn No. 79 in a regular season or playoff game. When he eventually makes it the NHL, Hart will have a chance to put his own stamp of success with a Flyers number that's all his ownwhile honoring two young friends he made back in Everett.