Twenty-four years ago, the Philadelphia Flyers made the Stanley Cup Final with a talented roster of big, physical skaters — including future Hall of Famer Eric Lindros at center and 50-goal scorer John LeClair at left wing. The oddsmakers had Philly favored to beat the smaller, faster Detroit Red Wings for the Cup … until the series actually began, that is.
Game 1 starting goalie Ron Hextall gave up four goals, including one by Steve Yzerman from approximately 60 feet away. Hextall was replaced in Game 2 by Garth Snow, who promptly let in four of his own (including two more from over 45 feet out). After turning back to Hextall for the rest of the series, Philly proceeded to allow eight more goals over the next two games en route to being swept by Detroit. The Flyers’ .861 save percentage in the series was 70 percent worse than average, the second-worst goaltending performance in Cup Final history.1 Thirteen years later, history repeated itself: When the Flyers lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010 with a save percentage 45 percent worse than league average, the tandem of Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher combined for the 11th-worst goaltending performance by a team in the Final.
Even in the best of times, such carousels of struggling goalies are basically the natural state of things in Philadelphia. The franchise has received nothing if not inconsistent — or outright horrible — goaltending performances in recent decades, seldom sticking with the same answer in net for more than a few seasons before moving on to the next would-be savior. This year’s version — 22-year-old Carter Hart — was the latest and perhaps the most disappointing one yet. Billed as a potential Vezina Trophy candidate in preseason, all Hart has done so far in 2021 is produce one of the worst goaltending seasons in hockey history. For a team with the Flyers’ netminding history, it may be disappointing — but again, it’s not surprising.
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Ironically, Philly’s glory years were fueled by goaltending. Hall of Fame backstop Bernie Parent became the first player ever to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in back-to-back years with a pair of totally dominating campaigns in 1974 and 1975 — still the Flyers’ only two Stanley Cup-winning seasons.
Parent’s save percentage was 31 percent better than average during those regular seasons, and he played 141 out of a possible 158 games for the Flyers in goal. The result was the second-most valuable pair of consecutive goaltending seasons in the NHL since (at least) 19432 according to goals above replacement,3 with Philly leading the league in value between the pipes in 1975 and finishing second in 1974. And Parent continued to be an absolute brick wall in the playoffs, where his save percentage was 24 percent better than average during those Cup runs. Although the Broad Street Bullies were known for their unprecedented mix of skill and violence, they would not have won those championships without Parent’s excellence in net.
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Philly’s goaltending tradition initially seemed like it would outlast Parent’s time with the club. The Flyers continued to rank among the league’s top 10 in goaltending value under his successors, particularly once Swedish phenom Pelle Lindbergh arrived in the early 1980s. Lindbergh had backstopped his country to the bronze medal at the 1980 Olympics — holding the gold-medalist Miracle on Ice U.S. team to a tie in their lone meeting — and he quickly established himself as one of the best goalies in the NHL as well. He ranked fourth in goaltending GAR in 1983 and first in 1985, the year he won the Vezina Trophy and led Philly to the Cup Final. Tragically, Lindbergh died in a car crash less than a year later, but backup Bob Froese stepped in between the pipes and delivered a great season of his own, finishing second in the Vezina race despite the difficult circumstances. The next year, Philly elevated a rookie Hextall to the starting job, and he produced one of the best seasons ever by a freshman goalie — winning the Vezina as well as the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP (despite the Flyers losing the Final to Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers in seven games).
Hextall never really repeated the highs of his rookie season, however, and by the 1990s, the Flyers had begun to transform from a franchise built on goaltending to one held back by it. Going back to Hextall and Snow’s meltdown in 1997, Philadelphia has gotten the league’s fifth-most GAR per season from its skaters … but the sixth-fewest GAR per season from its goaltenders.4 Only once has the team stuck with the same primary regular-season goalie5 for more than three consecutive seasons — Steve Mason, from 2014 through 2017 — and it’s had a different primary goalie in the playoffs than the regular season seven times in 18 postseason appearances.
|Year||Top Goalie||GA%-||Adj. GAR||Tm Rk||Top Goalie||GA%-||Adj. GAR|
|1997||R. Hextall||108||0.4||19||G. Snow||132||-5.1|
|1998||R. Hextall||95||9.7||12||S. Burke||168||-5.0|
|1999||J. Vanbiesbrouck||106||1.7||24||J. Vanbiesbrouck||72||3.6|
|2000||J. Vanbiesbrouck||99||7.1||10||B. Boucher||102||2.1|
|2001||R. Čechmánek||81||27.6||14||R. Čechmánek||124||-1.9|
|2002||R. Čechmánek||85||17.8||9||R. Čechmánek||78||2.2|
|2003||R. Čechmánek||82||24.6||7||R. Čechmánek||112||-1.0|
|2004||R. Esche||95||8.3||14||R. Esche||106||0.6|
|2006||A. Niittymäki||106||0.6||21||R. Esche||133||-2.7|
|2008||M. Biron||90||22.2||8||M. Biron||112||-1.5|
|2009||M. Biron||93||16.9||5||M. Biron||95||1.5|
|2010||B. Boucher||113||-3.3||21||M. Leighton||91||4.0|
|2011||S. Bobrovsky||98||9.6||14||B. Boucher||115||-0.8|
|2012||I. Bryzgalov||105||2.2||24||I. Bryzgalov||139||-6.7|
|2014||S. Mason||96||13.6||19||S. Mason||69||2.8|
|2016||S. Mason||97||11.7||6||M. Neuvirth||23||5.3|
|2018||B. Elliott||104||2.8||24||B. Elliott||164||-3.3|
|2020||C. Hart||96||10.2||16||C. Hart||90||4.3|
The Flyers have a few recurring archetypes in net. One is like early 2000s starter Roman Čechmánek, who played great in the regular season — finishing third in adjusted save percentage over his three-season stint as Philly’s primary goalie — but repeatedly struggled during the playoffs and was eventually traded. Another type is the journeyman, such as Boucher, Leighton, Michal Neuvirth or even Hart’s current backup, Brian Elliott, who is on his fifth team in 14 NHL seasons. This penchant for unremarkable veterans is associated with the Flyers’ tendency not to use cap space on goaltending; Philadelphia ranks 27th in spending at the position this season and hasn’t ranked any higher than 26th since 2017.
Normally, this would be considered a good strategy. After all, goalies are notoriously unpredictable, and the Flyers have been burned by expensive flops in net before. Spending less on volatile netminders frees up more money for skaters, who can be more stable investments. But sometimes, you also get what you pay for — and the Flyers have ranked better than 14th in goaltending GAR just once since 2009.
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Hart seemed like the solution to all of these problems. After a strong debut as a 20-year-old in 2019, he held up his save percentage under an increased workload in 2020, and saved his best performance for the playoff bubble, backstopping Philly as it won in the first round and pushed the New York Islanders to Game 7 in the East semifinals. Hart’s .926 save percentage was the second-best in franchise playoff history for a goalie playing at least 10 games. There were plenty of reasons to think Hart would build on that performance and emerge as one of the league’s best goalies in his third NHL campaign.
Of course, that didn’t happen. Among goalies who have appeared in at least 20 games this season, Hart ranks dead last in save percentage, goals-against average, quality-start rate and goals saved versus average. Philadelphia ranks last in goaltending GAR for the first time in franchise history, and Hart’s GAR per 82 games (-33.4) is on pace to give him the fourth-worst season by an NHL goalie since 1943. To call this season a disaster is an understatement, and the sieve-like netminding has helped drag Philadelphia’s once-promising playoff odds off a cliff as the season has progressed:
But while poor technique on save attempts moving laterally and a shaky glove hand have certainly cost Hart loads of makeable saves, it’s not all the young netminder’s fault. Philadelphia’s defense has also been awful, ranking 30th in GAR and frequently giving up high-danger scoring chances. And the team’s offense, which was supposed to be a strength after ranking seventh in scoring last year, has been merely average (14th) in 2021. Just like many of Hart’s predecessors in the Flyers’ net — from the 1997 Finals on down the line — he hasn’t gotten much help from the players around him. It’s worth noting that, playing behind the same defense, Elliott has also put up well-below-average statistics, even if his numbers aren’t quite as historically dreadful as Hart’s.
But that’s just the thing — the expectation is that an elite young goaltender can overcome some of the shortcomings around him, rather than be dragged down by them just the same as a 35-year-old journeyman. In falling short of that standard this season, Hart has at least tentatively added his name to the long list of letdowns in Philadelphia’s net. Perhaps a recent break to step back and reassess his game, followed by a solid performance against the Islanders in his return (despite the loss), can help restore Hart’s form and confidence down the stretch, even if the Flyers are unlikely to salvage their playoff hopes. For now, though, it’s yet another case of gruesome goaltending for a franchise that can never seem to find the right solution between the pipes.