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Hart poised to end Flyers' long search for franchise goalie

21-year-old has 'all the tools in the world' to stabilize position

by Adam Kimelman @NHLAdamK / NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

Carter Hart could be the answer to a question the Philadelphia Flyers have been asking for 30 years:

Who will be their next franchise goalie?

Since Ron Hextall helped the Flyers reach the Stanley Cup Final in 1987, Philadelphia has drafted 41 goalies; none has played more than 174 NHL games for them. They've had 42 goalies play at least one game, including an NHL-record eight last season.

But Hart looks like he can become a fixture after playing 31 games for the Flyers last season as a rookie.

"He seems to be really strong mentally, really mature as a young goalie and as a person," Philadelphia center Sean Couturier said. "He's got all the tools in the world to have success in this league for a long time."

Hart, who turned 21 on Aug. 13, made his NHL debut Dec. 18 and went 16-13-1 with a 2.83 goals-against average and .917 save percentage in 31 games (30 starts), including an eight-game winning streak from Jan. 14-Feb. 9 that tied the League record for the longest by a goalie before his 21st birthday (Jocelyn Thibault for the Quebec Nordiques, March 6-26, 1995).

He is 1-0-0 after making 28 saves in a 4-3 win against the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2019 NHL Global Series in Prague on Friday and is expected to make his second start against the New Jersey Devils at Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVAS).

Video: Konecny propels Flyers to win in Czech Republic

Hart was at his best last season when he was busiest. He faced at least 40 shots on goal in a game seven times, tied with Alexandar Georgiev of the New York Rangers for second most in the NHL after Dec. 17, one fewer than Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets. In those games, Hart went 6-1-0 with a 2.52 GAA and .939 save percentage.

He has drawn comparisons to Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price. Bernie Parent, the goalie who helped the Flyers win their only two Stanley Cup championships, mentioned Hart in the same sentence as Ken Dryden, a Hockey Hall of Fame goalie who won the Cup six times with Montreal.

Flyers center Claude Giroux, who has seen plenty of goalies come and go since becoming a full-time NHL player in 2008-09 -- Philadelphia has used 21 since that season -- said Hart appears to have staying power.

"For that age, the way he prepares and the way he is, it's impressive," Giroux said. "He brings it every night. If something happens to him, he doesn't stop playing, he doesn't get distracted. He's a really focused kid. ... When you're 20, you're not supposed to be that good, you're not supposed to be able to take that much pressure, and he's done a really good job of it."

How spotty is the Flyers' goalie history? Since Philadelphia entered the NHL in 1967, four goalies (Hextall, 489; Parent, 486; Steve Mason, 231; Doug Favell, 215) have played more than 200 games for them, and 44 have played fewer than 100.

Bad drafting, trades and free agent signings, the inability to develop a prospect, and injuries have been big reasons.

***

As a rookie, Hextall was voted the winner of the Vezina Trophy as the best goalie in the NHL in the regular season and the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP despite Philadelphia losing to the Edmonton Oilers in the 1987 Cup Final. But groin injuries hampered him, and he was sent to the Nordiques as part of the trade for Eric Lindros in June 1992. After being traded back to Philadelphia in September 1994, he helped the Flyers reach the Eastern Conference Final in 1995 and the Cup Final in 1997 but never recaptured his rookie-season magic.

The Flyers selected Brian Boucher with the No. 22 pick of the 1995 NHL Draft, and he helped them reach the Eastern Conference Final as a rookie in 2000. But he lost the starting job to Roman Cechmanek, a sixth-round pick (No. 171) in the 2000 NHL Draft, in 2000-01 and was traded to the Phoenix Coyotes in June 2002. Cechmanek had a 1.96 GAA, a .923 save percentage and 20 shutouts in three seasons with Philadelphia, but the Flyers won one playoff series with him, and he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in May 2003.

Antero Niittymaki, a sixth-round pick (No. 168) in the 1998 NHL Draft, started 143 games for Philadelphia in five seasons from 2003-09, but hip injuries limited him.

From 1988-2012, the Flyers drafted seven goalies in the first three rounds, including Boucher and Maxime Ouellet, a first-round pick (No. 22) in the 1999 NHL Draft, but none worked out. Also on that list are Dominic Roussel (third round, No. 63, 1988), Jean-Marc Pelletier (second round, No. 30, 1997), Jacob Deserres (third round, No. 84, 2008), Adam Morrison (third round, No. 81, 2009) and Anthony Stolarz (second round, No. 45, 2012).

Sergei Bobrovsky, an undrafted free agent, signed in May 2010 and was a surprise starter at age 22 on opening night of the 2010-11 season. But he struggled during the 2011 playoffs (0-2, 3.23 GAA, .877 save percentage), leading to the Flyers signing Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million contract.

 

[RELATED: Simmonds says first game for Devils against Flyers will be 'pretty weird']

 

Bobrovsky was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets in June 2012 and has won the Vezina twice (2013, 2017). Bryzgalov was bought out of the final seven seasons of his contract in June 2013.

The Flyers have tried veterans in free agency (John Vanbiesbrouck, Jeff Hackett, Ray Emery twice, Michal Neuvirth, Brian Elliott) and in trades (Hextall, Sean Burke twice, Martin Biron, Mason), all with little success.

Hart, who already is 30th in games played among goalies in Flyers history, said he isn't concerned about Philadelphia's decades of instability at the position.

"All that other outside noise doesn't matter," he said. "For me, that's all I have to worry about, is my job."

Parent, who helped the Flyers win the Stanley Cup in 1974 and '75, said he believes Hart can be an all-time great. 

"I keep using [Wayne] Gretzky or Bobby Orr, those guys, as an example," Parent said. "In those days, you had a lot of great hockey players, but those guys stood out about above everyone else. And to me, that's how I see this kid. When Dryden came up with Montreal that first year, how well he played, had a very strong mind, and that's what you need as a goalie. Let's not forget this is God-given talent that you can't teach. … [Hart] is a beautiful individual to watch play."

Biron said Hart's technical skill and mental strength make him similar to another distinguished Canadiens goalie: Price, who won the Vezina in 2015 and also was voted the Hart Trophy winner that season as NHL MVP.

"He reminds me of Carey Price in the way that Carey is very calm in net, very assertive in his strengths and his ability to play the game," Biron said.

Biron recalled when younger brother Mathieu played with Price for Hamilton of the American Hockey League during the 2006-07 season. 

"Carey had just finished his junior year and he was in the American League and the playoffs, and he was so confident, and he was so calm, and he was just 20, and it's like, how is this possible, that you're 20 and you can come in on a big stage?," Biron said. "The Calder Cup Playoffs, and winning the Calder Cup, it's a big stage, and it was like everyday business, no big deal, I'm just doing my job.

"Carter Hart's the same way. It's business as usual, I'm playing and winning games, it's no big deal."

Hart tries to pattern his game after Price, and that makes sense because they took a similar path to reach the NHL. 

Hart was the first three-time winner of the Del Wilson Trophy as the best goalie in the Western Hockey League and is the only player to be named the best goalie in the Canadian Hockey League twice (2015-16, 2017-18). Price won each honor in 2006-07.

Hart helped Canada win the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. Price helped Canada win the event in 2007.

Price said he was impressed when he watched from the bench as Hart made 33 saves in Philadelphia's 5-2 win at Montreal on Jan. 19. The Canadiens outshot the Flyers 12-1 in the first period, but the score was 0-0.

"He looked composed and hungry," Price said. "Had all the attributes of a fine young goaltender. He was the difference in the first period of our game, kept their team in it. ... [I'm] kind of envious of him in some sense in that he's just embarking on an NHL career."

***

Hart said the NHL experience he gained last season showed him where he needed to improve. It included adding 6 pounds since last season, when he was listed at 181, to help withstand the rigors of a full NHL season.

"I had a plan with (trainer) Phil (Daly) going into this offseason, that I wanted to add some muscle but keep my flexibility up, made sure that I keep my cardio up," he said. "I feel stronger and quicker in the net. I don't feel like I've lost a step with my flexibility or cardio.

"I'm happy with how training went the summer. I feel like I'm in really good shape. I feel stronger in the net, with my pushes I feel stronger. Doing everything in my cardio, got my cardio up and my flexibility up. So overall my health feels really good."

Hart said he knows staying healthy will be key. He missed eight games because of a lower-body injury sustained during the morning skate prior to a game Feb. 21 against the Canadiens.

Video: Carter Hart on getting ready for the season

"I think playing for a little bit more than half a year was good for me to experience what the NHL season is like and the day-to-day process," Hart said. "What to do away from the rink to take care of your body and what to do when you're at the rink to make the most of your time because you don't have a lot of practice time, you don't have a lot of time to even work out. You've got to make sure you find times to get your workouts in, and you've got to make sure you stay on top of your sleep and your nutrition. That was something that I found really key down the stretch when you started playing a lot of more back-to-backs and [three games in four days]. We have 17 back-to-backs this season, so that's going to be really key."

As much as Hart will be tested physically this season, his mental approach will be too. But that's one area where he already is on top of his game. 

Biron said he first noticed it watching Hart at the 2018 WJC in Buffalo. Hart allowed the deciding shootout goal against the United States in the 2017 WJC final.

"That's one of the biggest keys for goalies," Biron said. "You see guys that crumble with really tough adversity, and you see guys that are going to shine through.

"That's amazing that for [Hart], he had made the team, and with Team Canada there's so much pressure on the goalies, it's amazing he was able to come back that quick."

Hart's Flyers teammates didn't need long to see how unflappable he was.

"He just came in, just started doing it from Game One and just kind of ran with it," forward James van Riemsdyk said. "He just didn't seem to be intimidated by the moment of being a 20-year-old kid and coming in and getting thrown into the fire a little bit. He was the [sixth] of eight goalies that year, and we weren't obviously playing too well. So he came in and just did a tremendous job for us."

Now he has to do it again.

"This market is craving for a goaltender to step up and grab the reins, and he's the guy right now that people feel can do the job," general manager Chuck Fletcher said.

There's a long list of Flyers goalies who have been billed as the answer, only for the status of the position to remain in question.  

Boucher was where Hart is, a young hope for the future. Though he didn't get there, he's a believer in Hart.

"He's calm, he's cool, got a likable personality," said Boucher, an "NHL on NBC" analyst. "I don't want to get ahead of things, but I think he's the guy."

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