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    Controversy or competition? Carter Hart & Sam Ersson now sharing Flyers' net

    Charlie O'Connor Avatar
    January 23, 2024

    It was only five years ago when Carter Hart was the shiny new toy in goal for fans of the Philadelphia Flyers.

    He wasn’t merely the team’s top prospect. He was the organization’s great hope, after decades of searching for a long-term savior in net. And when January of 2019 came to an end, it sure looked like they had found him, given his 0.922 save percentage through 14 appearances at a mere 20 years of age. The net in Philadelphia was very much his.

    Now, for first time in his NHL career since then, the net is not his — at least not entirely. He’s sharing both the net — and possibly, the very title of Flyers’ goaltender of the future — with up-and-coming, 34-NHL-games-to-his-credit Sam Ersson.

    That certainly wasn’t the case at the start of the 2023-24 season. Ersson may have won an NHL roster spot with his second straight strong training camp. But head coach John Tortorella made it abundantly clear in announcing Ersson’s victory where the young Swede stood.

    “Hartsy’s our guy. Erss is backing him up,” Tortorella confirmed. “That’s where we’re at. They’re 1 and 2.”

    And that’s the way it was, at least through the beginning of December. Prior to Hart’s two-week absence due to an undisclosed illness, Hart had received 77.2 percent of the possible starts while healthy, a 60+ start pace over a full 82-game season.

    Since Christmas, however? It’s been a true 50/50 split, with Hart receiving seven starts and Ersson getting seven as well.

    So what happened? In short, Ersson earned it.

    “Sam has definitely earned the trust of the coaching staff,” Tortorella noted last week. “It’s not supplanting Carter or anything like that. It’s just Sam’s earned our trust.”

    Jan 21, 2024; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Samuel Ersson (33) waits in the tunnel for warmups against the Ottawa Senators at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

    It’s worth noting that Ersson’s emergence into stealth Calder Trophy contender this season didn’t come out of nowhere. Sure, when he slipped all the way into the fifth round back in 2018, he wasn’t a highly touted goalie prospect. But ever since his first post-draft season, attentive observers made note of Ersson’s NHL upside.

    Playing for Västerås IK at age 19 in the Allsvenskan – Sweden’s second-tier pro league – during the 2018-19 season, Ersson excelled. His 0.933 save percentage ranked second in the league, and while his team certainly was strong, Ersson was the more effective of Västerås’ two netminders, with 23-year old battery mate Emil Kruse posting an inferior 0.922 mark. Add in a strong showing for his country at the U20 World Junior Championships — a 0.922 save percentage of his own in four appearances — and Ersson put himself on the prospect map.

    Having mastered the Allsvenskan, Ersson made the full-time jump the following season to the top-tier of Swedish professional hockey: the SHL. His first extended taste of SHL action for Brynas didn’t come without a few bumps, given his 0.895 save percentage. But in keeping with a long-standing trend in Ersson’s pro career, he again outplayed his tandem-mate — this time it was SHL veteran and one-time Flyers prospect Joacim Eriksson — by a significant margin, as Eriksson posted a far-worse 0.880 mark. Neither goalie was getting much help, but Ersson was doing a better job of keeping his head above water given the difficult circumstances.

    The circumstances didn’t get better in 2020-21. But Ersson did.

    Ersson’s 0.911 save percentage that season may look only decent at first glance. But Brynas was a truly awful defensive club, giving up a deluge of scoring chances; Ersson’s primary backup again could manage just a 0.880 save percentage under the barrage. Ersson was basically the only reason that Brynas staved off relegation that season.

    In other words, Ersson came over to North America in 2021 with legitimate hype behind him, a top-10 prospect in the organization. A nagging groin injury may have spoiled his first season under the Flyers’ watchful eye, but a newly healthy Ersson didn’t let the opportunity slip in 2022-23. He delivered a monster training camp, quickly earned a call-up, and kicked off his NHL career with a 6-0-0 record and a 0.913 save percentage through nine appearances.

    A seven-goal debacle in New Jersey playing in front of tired skaters torpedoed his end-of-season statistics, leaving him with an unimpressive 0.899 save percentage that his remaining doubters relished in citing when Ersson got off to a slow start in 2023-24. But those who watched the bulk of his starts last season knew that the Flyers had an intriguing young goalie on their hands.

    And since Ersson’s fourth appearance this season, he’s positively thrived.

    A 12-4-3 record. A 0.926 save percentage. Three shutouts. A +17.98 Goals Saved Above Expectation mark (per Evolving-Hockey). These aren’t merely good results for Ersson — they’re elite ones. Since November 3, Ersson ranks third in the NHL among all goalies in save percentage and GSAx, and it wouldn’t be difficult to argue that only Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck — the sole netminder to rank above Ersson in both metrics — has been clearly better than the Flyers’ 24-year old “backup” over that span.

    That’s part of the reason why Hart has lost starts to Ersson. The other half of the equation is that the quality of Hart’s play has taken a legitimate dip.

    Jan 20, 2024; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Flyers goalie Carter Hart (79) reacts after allowing a goal against the Colorado Avalanche in the first period at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

    Hart’s full-season metrics are still perfectly fine. His 0.906 save percentage is well above the league average of 0.899, and his +1.75 Goals Saved Above Expectation means that he’s delivering above-average netminding by advanced metrics as well. Tortorella reiterated last week that in no way are the Flyers souring on Hart, a goaltender with a long track record of solid play and who as recently as December was sitting on a stellar 0.919 save percentage for the season.

    “Carter’s been really good. Sam has been really good,” Tortorella said. “It’s a big reason why we’re where at right now, as far as wins and losses. So they both deserve the net.”

    But since the team returned from its short Christmas break with the two in a functional timeshare, it’s been Ersson who has thrived, and Hart who has struggled.

    The Flyers’ just-concluded weekend back-to-back only reaffirmed the present gap, at least at first glance. After all, both took losses, but only Hart was yanked and replaced before his start came to an end.

    “I felt we were in the game. So I switched the goalie,” Tortorella bluntly stated, when asked to justify pulling Hart after the second period against the Avalanche on Saturday.

    But the pro-Ersson/anti-Hart narrative from the weekend isn’t quite fair. Hart may have allowed five goals to Colorado, but let’s dive a little deeper. Goal No. 1 was via a double-deflection and possible kick. Goal No. 2 was a basically unstoppable one-timer from a player (Mikko Rantanen) with an especially strong one-timer. The third goal came on a breakaway by Nathan MacKinnon, one of the best players in hockey. Goal 4 was perhaps stoppable in theory with better positioning from Hart, but Logan O’Connor still executed a near-perfect redirect shot upstairs to finish off the play. The fifth goal Hart allowed was the one that had fans up in arms most, and while it did appear to be weak at first glance, Hart claimed after the game that the shot redirected off a teammate (likely Travis Sanheim) in front before reaching him.

    Suddenly, Saturday looks more like a tough-luck game than a true disaster for Hart. Compare that to Ersson, who also gave up five goals on the weekend — including a relatively weak one in relief of Hart on Saturday after the Flyers cut the deficit to just one goal. Did Ersson receive much criticism for allowing fourth liner Zack MacEwen to beat him on a breakaway? For not finding a way to cover a loose puck in the midst of a scramble just seconds after a Flyers goal? Is it possible that, just maybe, fans are viewing Ersson with rose-tinted glasses at the moment and looking for reasons to be especially frustrated with Hart?

    Confirmation bias, after all, is a very real thing — especially for those who have decided that Ersson is now the shiny new toy, and Hart is the Prince That Did Not Live Up To His Promise.

    Regardless of fan sentiment, however, the Flyers are nowhere near ready to move Hart into a backup role. Tortorella noted last Thursday that the new 50/50 split isn’t just about Ersson’s recent play — it’s the busy post-Christmas schedule as well, one that has the Flyers squeezing 17 games into 31 days, including one West Coast trip and another two to the Midwest. That’s played into the implementation of a goalie timeshare as well.

    Nor do Hart’s teammates seem to be losing faith in him, which makes sense — most of them have watched Hart backstop a truly poor hockey team the past two seasons with no public complaints, and still stop over 90 percent of the shots in both years. And they also seem to realize that, on the whole, Hart has been fine overall this season.

    “I think both our goalies, they give us a chance every night,” Joel Farabee noted on Sunday. “Carter and Sam have been awesome all year. It doesn’t matter who we put in net, we feel 100% confident that those guys are gonna get the job done.”

    Oct 5, 2023; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Flyers right wing Travis Konecny (11), goaltender Carter Hart (79) and goaltender Samuel Ersson (33) celebrate win against the New York Islanders at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

    The increased competition doesn’t even seem to be negatively impacting the relationship between the two goalies. Farabee remembered Hart making a point to support Ersson during his early-season struggles, and even now, the two goalies regularly chat back and forth in the locker room after practices with smiles on their faces.

     “They have such a good relationship,” Farabee continued. “I think coming to the rink every day, they really push each other to be better.”

    This isn’t a goalie controversy — it’s a goalie competition, and a positive one at that.

    “I think that’s the way you’ve got to look at it,” Ersson agreed. “We’re trying to push each other to get better every day, but also for the team’s sake. I think we need both me and Carter to play well, and that’s a good thing for me.”

    Right now, however, it is fair to say that Ersson is getting the better of said competition. And if Ersson’s lead by the numbers holds through February and March, the Flyers will have to ask themselves some tough questions.

    After all, Hart is due for a new contract as a pending RFA come summer, and he’ll surely be asking for a sizable raise on his current $3.979 million cap hit. Ersson, on the other hand, is a year younger than Hart, and locked up to a bargain $1.45 million cap charge in 2024-25 and 2025-26. The Flyers have a decision looming on just how much money they want to tie up in Hart — not even accounting for the possibility that he could be linked at some point in the future to the Hockey Canada scandal that remains unresolved — with Ersson thriving in the NHL, and numerous quality goalie prospects (Aleksi Kolosov, Carson Bjarnason, Yegor Zavragin) in the system as well.

    In the here and now, however, the presence of both Hart and Ersson is a good problem for the Flyers. They have a prime-age goalie who has been better than league average in four of his six NHL seasons, and an emerging rookie who has delivered elite-level results for nearly three straight months but could crash back to earth at any moment.

    The net in Philadelphia may not solely be Carter Hart’s anymore. But having to justifiably share it isn’t the worst thing for him, and it’s undeniably a good thing for the Flyers.

    “For us, having two young goalies that are as good as they are, it’s definitely an exciting time in Philly,” Farabee said.

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