In the 39-year history of the Bobby Clarke Trophy for Flyers’ most valuable player, only two goaltenders have taken home the coveted award.
That number could change next month.
When the season comes to a close, the odds-on favorite would have to be considered netminder Carter Hart, who is quietly putting together a pretty darn good campaign.
Heading into Friday night’s game against the Buffalo Sabres, Hart was the only NHL netminder on a below-.500 team whose 2.96 goals-against average stood beneath the 3.00 standard.
This on a team whose collective minus-48 was one of the worst in the league through 67 games.
Hart’s performance hasn’t gone unnoticed by coaches or players.
It’s the 24-year-old’s resolve which catches the eyes of people around the team. He seldom loses his calm, his poise, which is so critical in the business of stopping pucks.
First-year head coach John Tortorella had watched Hart perform from an opposing team’s bench over the past years but the 2022-23 season offered him a chance to study Hart both on and off the ice.
While this team, minus stars such as Sean Couturier, Cam Atkinson, Ryan Ellis and most recently Travis Konecny, has struggled mightily at times, Hart has fought off shot after shot and maintained a more-than-respectable .906 save percentage.
“What’s impressive to me about him all year is he just plays, no matter what goes on in front of him,” Tortorella said. “I think we’ve made improvements in front of him, our structure has been inconsistent but better. For a lot of the year we still have a way to go there.
“He’s been really good. Forget about the numbers, I just like the way he carries himself.”
Hockey is the ultimate sport for teamwork. Goaltenders, like pitchers in baseball and quarterbacks in football, ultimately control how action is initiated. Some will lose their cool, gesture in frustration at a teammate’s bad play and show them up, so to speak.
You won’t see Hart putting a fellow player in a bad light.
“I look at highlights sometimes from other teams,” Tortorella said. “And I see a breakdown or something like that and a goal goes in. I see a goalie burning a hole (with his eyes) through a defenseman. My skin crawls, watching someone from another team.
“Carter sweeps the puck out of the net, no matter what happens, and gets ready to play. That’s what I like about him. I think he’s a really good pro and his preparation. . .I just like that stuff about him. His play speaks for itself.”
Defenseman Nick Seeler confirms Hart has been the Flyers’ MVP this season. If Konecny had not been injured last month, he probably would have been a shoo-in for the honor. But the reality is, Hart will finish with close to 60 starts and he’s kept the Flyers in a lot of them against superior competition.
“Hartsy’s been our best player all year,” Seeler said. “He’s been keeping us in games, even earlier on in the season when he was stealing games for us was huge. You know when he’s back there he’s going to give us an opportunity to win. We just need to play well in front of him.
“His play definitely gives us confidence, that little jam that we need. It’s nice to have a guy on the back end that you can count on.”
Second-year center Noah Cates appreciates all the times Hart has bailed out both him and some of the younger players who are more prone to mistakes.
“I especially like it when your goalie is dialed in,” Cates said. “He’s really focused and sticking to that routine. I think that brings a lot of confidence to the team. For myself, too, just knowing that you’ve got that guy back there.
“You just know he’s going to make that save. In so many of our games he’s been our best player.”
Hart, who has one more year left on a contract which pays him just under $4 million annually, can become a restricted free agent in 2024-25. But from all indications, he wants to remain a Flyer for a lot longer than that.
Statistically, this might not have been his best season but the numbers don’t always tell the whole story. Even this late in the year, he’s still stealing a game here and there.
“I’m just trying to take things one day at a time,” Hart insisted. “Just keep getting better. For myself, I’m 24 and making the most of our situation here. I think these last 15 games here, it’s important we dial it in, grind. Sometimes it might not be easy – practice, off the ice, but we have to find a way to better ourselves for next season.”
Spoken like a legitimate MVP candidate.