The Flyers goaltending which started out the season as a strength has quickly deteriorated into a question mark. For those of us that have followed the Flyers for years it is wash, rinse, and repeat. This is a story that has unfolded for years; decades even. The difference is now there is a distinct end to the vicious cycle of Flyers goaltending uncertainty. Carter Hart. Carter Hart is the future at goaltender for the Flyers. The debate isn’t centered on “if”, but “when” will Carter Hart be the Flyers savior in goal. I will present five reasons why I think Carter Hart will be wearing a Flyers (not a Phantoms) uniform for the 2018-2019 NHL season.
1. Alex Lyon
Alex Lyon has arguably (or perhaps not arguably) been the best relief man in the NHL. When coming off the bench in relief, Lyon has a 2.17 GAA and a .931 save percentage. Those are outstanding numbers; however a backup goalie is also expected to shoulder some of the starting load. In games he has started, Lyon has a 3.02 GAA and a .894 save percentage. Those starter numbers could (and probably should) be enough to scare Hextall away from relying on him as a full-time backup at the NHL level. Alex Lyon has been a nice story this season and has done everything asked or expected of him. Nonetheless, his best spot (at least for now) is getting consistent game action with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
2. Michal Neuvirth/Petr Mrazek
Michal Neuvirth is as frustrating as he is talented. Of all of the goalies currently under contract, it could be argued that Neuvirth is the most talented. After all, he almost single-handedly stole a playoff series from the Washington Capitals in 2016. In that series, Neuvirth had a 0.67 GAA and a .981 save percentage and a shutout. Unfortunately, it seems whenever he had the opportunity to be a more consistent contributor, he gets injured. Neuvirth just can’t stay healthy long enough to be relied upon as a viable option. It was because of an injury to Neuvirth that the Flyers acquired Petr Mrazek from Detroit. Neuvirth got injured (Brian Elliott was already out) which left the Flyers with a complete lack of depth in goal. This necessitated Ron Hextall trading away two conditional draft picks for Mrazek. To say Mrazek has been underwhelming in his short time with the Flyers is a massive understatement. Mrazek is 6-6-3 with a 3.22 GAA and a .891 save percentage and shutout with the Flyers.
Mrazek has not exactly provided a great return on investment. Neuvirth still has one year left on his contract and Mrazek is a restricted free agent after this season. Given Neuvirth’s inability to stay healthy I would expect the Flyers to buyout that last season of his contract. Mrazek’s uninspiring play since his acquisition will likely get him non-tendered, making him an unrestricted free agent. It seems extremely unlikely that either Neuvirth or Mrazek are back with the Flyers next season.
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3. Brian Elliott
Brian Elliott has one year left on his contract that will pay him $3 million ($2.75M cap hit) next season. Elliott is 22-11-7 with a 2.73 GAA and a .908 save percentage this season. While he has not been spectacular, he has been solid and provided a good return on investment for the Flyers. One of the great things about Elliott is his ability and willingness to work in a goaltender timeshare. In fact, it could be argued that Elliott’s best work has come as part of a tandem. The best seasons of Elliott’s career came in St. Louis from 2012-2016 when he was splitting time with Jaroslav Halak, Ryan Miller, Martin Brodeur, and Jake Allen. Even in Calgary last season, Elliott split time with Chad Johnson.
Splitting time with another goalie is hardly a foreign concept to Elliott. It is very possible that overusing Elliott is what led to his core body injury this season. At the point he got hurt, Elliott had already started 40 games for the Flyers. He was on pace to obliterate his previous career high of 48 games started in 2009-2010 with Ottawa. Having a reliable understudy, especially one the caliber of Carter Hart, could prove beneficial to both Elliott and the Flyers.
4. Young Defense
The Flyers have spent vast resources in fortifying their defense corps with young, talented players. It’s no secret that the strength of the Flyers present and future resides on the blueline. Shayne Gostisbehere (24), Ivan Provorov (21), Robert Hagg (23), and Travis Sanheim (22) have solidified themselves and mainstays at defense. There are even more talented, young defensemen coming up through the system as well. The players mentioned are only getting better and adding Carter Hart to the mix in goal (even on a part-time basis for a year) and allowing him to grow with those players would seem to make sense.
5. The time is right
There seems to be this myth that next year will be too soon because Carter Hart is “only 19 years old.” Eh, not so much…and here’s why. Carter Hart will be 20 by the time next season starts and well within the acceptable age range. Some of the best goalies of the last 30 years have broken into the NHL between 19 and 22 years old. Martin Brodeur, Patrick Roy and Marc-Andre Fleury were 19. Carey Price, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tuukka Rask, and Roberto Luongo were 20. Curtis Joseph, Jonathan Quick, and Sergei Bobrovski were 22. Even Flyers GM, Ron Hextall was 22 when he broke into the NHL. So it’s not as if Carter Hart’s age is a prohibitive factor to having success in the NHL.
Is it possible that the Flyers sign a cheap, veteran backup to pair with Brian Elliott next season? Sure, I suppose. Is it possible that someone within the organization, like Stolarz, Tokarski or Lyon (assuming they re-sign), backs up Elliott next season? Sure, I suppose. Although I think a Stolarz/Tokarski and Lyon combination would make a very effective 1-2 punch with the Phantoms next season. Given the fact that both Mrazek and Neuvirth likely won’t be back next season the opportunity for Hart will be there.
Is the NHL a huge step up from the WHL? Absolutely, but let’s not act as though he has just been coasting through in that league. Hart has completely dominated the WHL for four years now, including strong playoff performances. He has also seen success on the international stage playing for Team Canada in the World Juniors. Carter Hart has seen the spotlight and been under the microscope before. If Carter Hart outperforms Stolarz, Lyon, or whomever else they bring in it will be hard to justify not having him on the NHL roster.
One final thing to consider: Carter Hart has just two years remaining on his entry-level contract. Why not see what their truly elite goaltending prospect has on the biggest stage sooner rather than later and let him learn under a quality veteran? For Carter Hart and the Flyers, the future could be now or at least much closer than many think.
Mandatory Photo Credit: Christopher Mast/Icon Sportswire via AP Images