Carter Hart
After a disappointing season on the ice, Carter Hart’s 2020-21 season finishes in disappointing fashion, with an MCL sprain ending his year prematurely. (Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)

I’d say no rest for the wounded, but actually, it’s the exact opposite. On Thursday morning, the Flyers announced goaltender Carter Hart will miss the rest of the 2020-21 regular season with a left knee MCL sprain.

The injury apparently took place during or just after the Flyers 2-1 shootout win over the Penguins exactly two weeks ago. At first, the Flyers said it was just a minor injury, but it was becoming clear the injury was slightly more serious than initially thought. Hart took a while to resume skating, and ultimately, the Flyers are choosing to play it safe with their young goaltender by shutting him down for the season. With the Flyers season all but over (they could officially be eliminated from playoff contention as soon as tonight), it’s certainly a logical decision.

Few players across the entire NHL had a more disappointing 2021 season than Carter Hart, especially considering how well he was playing coming into this season. Hart was the Flyers most consistent player in the bubble, posting two shutouts, a .926 save percentage, and stopping 3.9 goals above average (GSAA). Most importantly, he led the team to their first playoff series victory since 2012.

This success felt like a long-time coming. Hart was the first goalie taken in the 2016 NHL Draft (46th overall). He won all kinds of accolades in junior hockey. After only two months of AHL action, newly minted GM Chuck Fletcher called Hart up to try and stop the bleeding during the club’s disappointing 2018-19 season. The 20-year old certainly did his best to right the ship, posting a strong .917 percentage and 7 GSAA in 31 games. He was just as good in the 2019-20 regular season, sporting a .914 save percentage and 4.5 GSAA. Hart was a huge reason why the Flyers were tied for the NHL’s best record from January 8 on.

Hart and the Flyers expected to build on their aforementioned success in the bubble this year. Instead, things fell apart for both. Hart ranks dead last out of 70 qualifying NHL goaltenders with -22.93 GSAA. For reference, Joonas Koprisalo is 69th at -13.15; the gap in GSAA (-9.78) between Korpisalo and Sergei Bobrovsky, who is 49th. Out of 54 goalies with at least 15 games played, Hart is dead last with a .877 save percentage. The gap between him and 53rd place Brian Elliott (his backup) is as big as the gap between Elliott and Anton Khudobin and Darcy Kuemper (T-32nd). Hart wasn’t just bad this year; he far and away put up the worst numbers of any NHL goaltender.

Now, it’s not all doom and gloom for Hart’s future. Yes, Hart struggled mightily this season (he played in 27 games). But he’s been very solid in his first two seasons (74 regular-season games, 14 more in the playoffs). And this season is obviously a weird one; the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on every team and player. Hart and the Flyers are no exception. Philadelphia’s team defense has been pretty putrid in its own right; a lot of the goals Hart allowed were slam-dunks off defensive breakdowns that even prime Dominik Hasek wouldn’t have stopped. Hart’s .877 save percentage isn’t much worse than what Elliott and third-stringer Alex Lyon’s combined .890 mark. Hart clearly wasn’t the only problem, even though those aforementioned reasons don’t exempt his struggles.

And if you dig a little deeper, most of Hart’s struggles are clearly isolated to one month: March. Looking at save percentage, Hart posted a pedestrian .900 in January and a .897 mark in February; not great, but certainly not terrible. However March, Hart was an absolutely brutal .815 in March. The Flyers hellish schedule (17 games, no consecutive off-days) that month certainly played a role in the struggles, which weren’t isolated to their young goaltender. And sure enough, after a week-long reset near the end of the month, Hart finished the year strong, posting a .910 save percentage in five games in April. In fact, Hart regularly flashed some leather in those games (I also responded to the previously linked article in this post), alleviating some concern that a weak glove hand would tailspin his future.

However, the future of Hart and the Flyers is certainly cloudy at best. Hart almost certainly will bounce back, at least to a degree, during the 2021-22 season. It’s at least a little concerning Hart has dealt with injury trouble in each of his first three NHL seasons. As a rookie, Hart missed three weeks with a lower-body injury. Last season, Hart missed a month with a right abdominal strain. Maybe it’s just a matter of bad luck, but the Flyers could pursue a backup capable of playing a bigger role in the offseason in case lightning strikes twice thrice a fourth time.

Here’s my recap of the Flyers last game, in which they also received bad goaltending and also lost.

The pressure will certainly be on Hart to return to the strong form of his first two seasons. He should get help in the form of a better defense in front of him next season; Fletcher is expected to fill the void left by Matt Niskanen’s sudden retirement in November 2020 this offseason. This injury is the exclamation point on a nightmare campaign for Carter Hart. But as the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Carter Hart definitely still has a promising future. And the Flyers (and their fans) will no doubt be waiting for it to become the present come October.

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All Stats via Hockey-Reference