Carter Hart’s turnaround carrying Flyers

Few players entered the 2021-22 NHL season with more intrigue surrounding them than Philadelphia Flyers goalie Carter Hart.

Not only because of his importance to the Flyers and how his play could potentially make-or-break their season, but because he was entering year four of his career and we still did not really know what kind of player he is or is going to be.

The upside is still immense, the promise is still there, and if he reached that level there was a good chance it was going to be a game-changer for a Flyers team that has been searching for a franchise goalie for decades and already had a strong core of players in place.

Through the first quarter of the season, Hart has started to deliver on the promise and potential that gave the Flyers and their fans so much hope.

Through six weeks of the season, Hart has been one of the league’s best goalies so far, climbing to the top of pretty much every statistical category for goalies. He is fifth in all situations save percentage, second in even-strength save percentage, and is doing all of that behind a team that is giving up the sixth most shots in the league per game and only 23rd in the league in goals per game. Everything about their underlying numbers and offense suggests they should be struggling right now.

But they enter Thursday’s game against Tampa Bay with a solid 8-4-2 record that has them right in the thick of a tough Metropolitan Division. In what has to be a shocking twist for what Flyers fans are used to, goaltending is the thing elevating the rest of the team (backup Martin Jones has also played great in his four starts this season) instead of sinking it.

The latter part was a big problem for the Flyers a year ago when Hart badly regressed during the 2020-21 season. It reached a point where he was benched for a few games and even had his practice habits called out. It was a sudden regression from his first two years in the league when he showed the potential to be the Flyers’ long-term answer in goal. It was too early to say this was going to be a make-or-break year for him in Philadelphia (they signed him to a three-year extension in August) but it did seem like this season would go a long way toward giving us a better idea as to the type of goalie he could be.

The early returns this season have been fantastic for Hart and the Flyers.

In his first 10 starts he has had a save percentage of .915 or better in seven of them, while it has been one of the best 10-game stretches of his career.

The Flyers made significant changes to their roster — and especially on defense — this offseason in the hopes of improving their overall play and insulating their goalies a little more. They traded significant assets for Ryan Ellis and Rasmus Ristolainen, jettisoned Shayne Gostisbehere‘s contract, and signed Keith Yandle to a bargain basement deal. While Ristolainen has exceeded expectations, Ellis — the most significant of the additions — has been limited to just four games this season and is going to be sidelined for several more weeks.

Overall, it is hard to argue that the new-look defense has been noticeably better, especially given how many more shots they are allowing versus a year ago under the same coaching staff. The difference is they are getting the version of Hart that they have been hoping for since he was drafted and started to move through the system.

As of Thursday, the Flyers are giving up on average more than 13 “high-danger scoring chances” per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, the third worst mark in the league ahead of only Vegas and Detroit. They only allowed 9.27 per 60 minutes a year ago.

The difference? This season Hart has a .910 save percentage on those high-danger shots this season, third best mark in the league behind only Sergei Bobrovsky and Elvis Merzlikins. A year ago he was at .766 on those shots, one of the worst marks in the league.

The Flyers are always a difficult team to get a firm grasp on because in any given season they are capable of winning 10 games in a row or losing 10 games in a row, and sometimes they find a way to do both. It is not a team without talent, especially at forward. But there are still a lot of improvements that need to be made defensively and until that happens a lot of pressure is going to fall on Hart to get them through it.

So far he has been ready for the challenge.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

Eichel trade closes the book on Sabres’ failed rebuild

When Buffalo Sabres fans were actively cheering against their team during the NHL’s great tank battle of 2014-15, they were doing so with the hope that all of that losing would eventually lead to better days.

They had already missed the playoffs three years in a row, were the NHL’s worst team, and were in desperate need of a franchise-changing player. There was obvious incentive to finish with the league’s worst record that season. It would guarantee them a top-two pick, give them the best odds for Connor McDavid, and assure them of at least walking away with Jack Eichel, a fine consolation prize in the lottery that would have been a slam dunk No. 1 pick in almost any other draft year.

Either way they were going to get their franchise cornerstone, and they were going to spend that offseason adding talent after tearing it all to the ground.

Sam Reinhart, a No. 2 overall pick from the year before, was already in place. They acquired Evander Kane, who was injured at the time and out for the season, during the 2014-15 season from the Winnipeg Jets. They selected Eichel. Then they spent the offseason acquiring starting goalie Robin Lehner from Ottawa, Ryan O’Reilly from Colorado, and hiring a Stanley Cup winning coach in Dan Bylsma.

It was time to stop rebuilding and start winning.

What followed over the next six years was more disappointment, a revolving door of players, coaches, and general managers, and zero playoff appearances.

[Related: Jack Eichel saga ends as Sabres trade forward to Golden Knights]

The Eichel era in Buffalo reached its inevitable conclusion on Thursday with the trade that sent their former captain and franchise cornerstone to the Vegas Golden Knights for Peyton Krebs, Alex Tuch, and two draft picks. Whatever potential Krebs and Tuch have, there is still a far greater chance of this trade looking like a steal for Vegas in a couple of year than there is of Buffalo getting the better end of it. These trades rarely work out for the team trading the star, and that has especially been the case for the Sabres over the years.

It is a disappointing end to a failed rebuild that produced nothing close to what was hoped.

In the six full seasons of the Eichel era no team in the NHL won fewer games than the Sabres’ 176. That includes the Vegas team Eichel is now a part of, a team that (as of Thursday) has won one more game than Buffalo during that time despite not joining the NHL until 2017-18 and playing in 162 fewer games.

The Sabres were also the only team in the NHL to not make a single playoff appearance in those years (every team excluding New Jersey and Arizona played in at least two playoff series during that stretch), pushing their current playoff drought to 10 years, one of the longest in NHL history. They also picked No. 1 overall two more times (Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power) when that sort of thing was supposed to be behind them.

They literally could not have been worse during the past six years.

Eichel, for his part, was as productive as could have been hoped during his time in Buffalo. He averaged nearly a point per game offensively with a 0.95 mark that was 22nd out of 391 players that appeared in at least 300 games. That number actually increased in recent years, jumping to 1.04 points per game starting with the 2017-18 season. It is low-hanging fruit in hockey (and sports in general) to always point the finger at the top players for not doing enough when teams fail, but it simply does not apply here. The team around him stunk. Consistently. There is only so much one player can do, especially in a sport like hockey where the best players only a play a third of the game (at most) and will not always make an impact every single night.

No other player on the Sabres — current or former — came close to matching that production.

They also never adequately built a roster that was even close to contending. There were always too many holes on defense and with the forward depth no matter what they tried.

All of the veteran players they acquired for the start of the 2015-16 season. Kane? O’Reilly? Lehner? None of them spent more than three seasons in Buffalo. Kane was traded for a first-round pick that was later swapped for Brandon Montour, Lehner left as a free agent, and O’Reilly was sold for pennies on the dollar in a laughably lopsided trade that helped turn the St. Louis Blues into Stanley Cup champions.

Drafted players that were supposed to be a part of the Sabres’ next contending team around Eichel, specifically Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen, are also now gone.

Every other major move during those years backfired.

Jeff Skinner was acquired and had a monster year playing next to Eichel during the 2018-19 season and turned it into a massive contract. He has not come close to that production in the years since for a variety of reasons (injury, and also not getting any time next to Eichel in the following seasons).

They tried to sign Taylor Hall to a one-year deal last season, only to have it fail miserably, resulting in Hall being given away to Boston at the trade deadline where he immediately returned to being an impact player.

[Related: Golden Knights have questions to answer before Eichel debut]

It is like everything that has gone through Buffalo over the past decade has just completely fallen apart. Players, coaches, general managers. Does not matter what they did before or after, the time in Buffalo has just been a complete flop.

Go back five years and look at the Sabres’ top-three scorers during the 2017-18 season. It is Eichel, O’Reilly, and Reinhart. All of them in the prime of their careers between the ages of 21 and 25, all of them under team control for years, and all of them top-line players. Today, all the Sabres have to show for them is Krebs, Tuch, a couple of future first-round picks (almost certainly late first-round picks), Tage Thompson, and prospects Devon Levi and Ryan Johnson.

Not how anybody would have expected that to go. Krebs and Tuch are probably the best chance for an impact player out of that group, and it is likely that neither will be as good as the players they traded.

So that leaves the Sabres back where they started seven years ago, with one of the league’s worst rosters, still likely to be on the outside of the playoff picture, and in need of another massive rebuild to fix the mess.

By every objective measure the rebuild was a complete and total failure.

The only constant throughout all of this has been in the owners box the Pegulas have yet to put a Sabres team in the playoffs in a decade, have cycled through three GMs, seven head coaches, and now have one of the league’s lowest payrolls, finding themselves in a position where they have to add contracts like Johnny Boychuk (who will never play again) just to reach the  salary cap floor.

Grim times for a Buffalo fan base that deserves way more than what they are given from a team they have been fiercly loyal to all of these years.