The Flames have a knack for taking undersized players in late rounds who have tremendous upside potential. Looking to join Johnny Gaudreau and Andrew Mangiapane in Calgary this season is Matthew Phillips. We were able to sit down with him to chat about his goals for the upcoming season.
From childhood to the pros
Phillips grew up in Calgary, but his favourite team was actually the Detroit Red Wings. The fandom began because he shared a first name with former Wing Mathieu Schneider, but Phillips idolized Pavel Datsyuk, another an undersized forward who was coincidentally taken in the sixth round as well. Like Datsyuk, Phillips’ incredible hands, nose for the net, and ability to play against guys bigger than him have turned a lot of heads.
Despite an absolutely dominant junior career that saw him amass a whopping 281 points in 215 games, a Victoria Royals franchise record, it was up to Phillips to prove he belonged.
In his final WHL year, Phillips put up 112 points for the Royals, clearly indicative of a player who was just too good for that level, but getting minutes in Stockton was hard for Phillips. “You kinda had to work your way up the lineup… You don’t just show up and here’s your first line and powerplay time, you have to earn that.”
As has been the case throughout his hockey career, the biggest question surrounding Phillips was his size. Having always been the smallest guy on any team he has played on throughout his hockey career, he has always found a way to adapt his game to whatever the challenge may be. “I’ve just learned to play my style and picked up things along the way that has helped me be successful,” he remarked with a laugh. Unafraid to get into the corners and fight for the puck, Phillips has been able to find success no matter the competition.
In fact, because he’s had to adapt at every level, the transition to Stockton wasn’t as huge a hurdle as many expected.
While he had a good first season in Stockton, putting up 38 points in 65 games, the real magic happened in his second season. Playing at around a point-per-game pace through the first half of the season, Phillips was named to the AHL All-Star game. It was a big coming out party for the hometown kid as, once again, the pace and pressure of the next league he played in was no problem. Unfortunately, Phillips suffered his first major injury midway through the season, which held him out of a game for the first time since peewee.
“It was a little bit frustrating. I was getting into a rhythm and the team was playing really well that it was a tough time to go down,” he recalled. Although the recovery process was long and a little lonely, it was a good learning for him and gave him an opportunity to support the team in a different way. “I’m feeling good and back to normal. As far as injuries go it went as well as it could.”
Next up: the NHL?
Will he be able to translate his skills to the NHL?
Phillips thinks so.
“Making the NHL is my goal,” he said. “That’s always been the goal.”
Through the pandemic he has been in Calgary training with Dillon Dube. A guy who has made the transition from a stellar junior career through the AHL to the NHL, Phillips mentioned that he has learned a lot from training with his former WHL adversary. “No surprise to see guys like Dillon [Dube] and Juuso [Valimaki] going up to Calgary and having success.” Having played against both in junior, they have both been a step ahead and guys that were going to be successful in the NHL.
Phillips wants to be one of those guys. “This is the most confident I’ve felt going into camp… whenever that is,” he said with a laugh. However the Flames have made that task more difficult, bringing in Dominik Simon, Josh Leivo, and Joakim Nordstrom to help add to their depth. Phillips knows that it will be a battle. “Teams want to win… and you have to work that much harder to earn a spot”.
However, he is no stranger to the challenge. Phillips knows that he has to bring his best to earn a shot in Calgary. If not this season, Phillips will be back in Stockton, honing his skills and taking on even more of a leadership role on the team. With a number of younger players coming into the team, Phillips will be looked to as a mentor.
However, the dream is, as it has always been, making the NHL. A perennial underdog, Phillips knows it will be a challenge no matter whether it is this year or next. A player with a heavy compete level, he was made for the challenge. Indeed it is what he has done all the way through his hockey career.
We wish him nothing but success.
Photo credit: Brandon Weiss/Stockton Heat