While this season has been very up and down for the Calgary Flames, things could not be going better for the Stockton Heat. They currently lead the Canadian Division with a 0.708 winning percentage through 12 games, and are sixth league-wide. The hot start includes some good offensive showings from several players, and two in particular stand out.
Matthew Phillips and Adam Ruzicka are both a part of the AHL’s top 20 scoring leaders. This is on top of having played fewer games than almost anyone else in the league. The two sit sixth and ninth respectively in points-per-game among all players who have played at least ten games so far this season. Not bad for former sixth and fourth round picks, respectively.
While Ruzicka has looked good, his production has sort of come from out of nowhere. He put up 27 points in 54 games in his rookie season last year, and hovered around the point-per-game pace in junior. This year, he started the season off incredibly hot with four three-point outings, but has only two points through his last six games. He is someone to get excited about for sure, but likely needs more seasoning in the AHL.
Of bigger interest, Matthew Phillips has been dynamite. He currently has 15 points through 12 games, and has points in every game but three. Phillips has registered at least one shot in every game except two, and has been a driver of play across the ice. What’s more, only two of his goals have come on the powerplay, showing his ability to get things done at even strength. While the AHL does not have advanced stats like corsi or scoring chance data publicly available, his raw numbers jump off the page very positively.
Numbers and statistics go a long way, but what adds even more context is some video footage. Let’s take a look at some of the clips to show why Phillips deserves a shot in the NHL.
What does Matthew Phillips bring?
While he is only 5’7″, Phillips plays like a cross between Andrew Mangiapane and Johnny Gaudreau. He has the incredible, albeit not as good, offensive abilities of a player like Gaudreau, including the speed and ability to make plays in the offensive zone. What he also has is the hard nosed gritty style of play of a player like Mangiapane, who is not afraid to get into danger areas or throw hits around. This part of his game is right up Darryl Sutter‘s alley.
Watch this clip below and keep your eyes on #11, the one who creates the initial turnover.
Phillips is a strong backchecker, something that has been evident this year in Stockton. He is able to strip the Marlies skater of the puck through the neutral zone and then drive the play into the offensive end. When the puck is on his stick, Phillips is able to keep his feet moving, making it hard to hit him. He also has incredible vision, able to make a great cross-seam pass early on to force the defenders to move over to the other side.
But what is even more interesting is how he moves without the puck. He start in the far corner, then along the wall, to the slot to open a lane for a pass or a tip, then back up to the wall, then right to the front of the net for a rebound. For almost the entirety of that shift, Phillips either has the puck on his stick or is in a position to receive one. His off-the-puck movement creates options for the Heat, and forces defenders to keep adjusting in order to limit his effectiveness.
Even more than that, once Connor Zary’s (47) rebound is stopped and Phillips cannot pick it up for a third opportunity, he follows the puck into the corner and finishes his check against a guy who looks to be at least a foot taller than him. Phillips plays like a big guy, and works hard to create chances.
Intelligent Passing ability
Phillips has put up points at a call-up worthy pace. Last season, he had 15 goals and 18 assists in an injury-shortened season of 38 games. He was just shy of playing at a point-per-game pace, but has started this season off on fire (pun intended).
An alternate captain this year in Stockton, Phillips has done a great job of making his teammates look good. He has nine assists this season, and some of them are absolute beauties. Check out this one which came against the Toronto Marlies.
This pass went skate to skate to stick to Ruzicka to the back of the net. Not only that, but he found Ruzicka slightly behind him on the play without even so much as a glance. Phillips has such strong reflexes and reads the play at such a high level that he is able to make a play as tough as that one look so simple. Here is one more assist that once again finds Ruzicka:
He finds his way through two bodies, right to the slot and is able to somehow find his teammate all alone in front. But what is interesting is Phillips’ play to force his way to the middle of the ice, and makes the Marlies’ defenders close him down. This then gives Ruzicka the room that he needs to get a clear shot on net and put the Heat ahead.
A guy who is able to regularly beat one or two guys right in tight in the AHL is likely a bit too good for that league. While he may not be able to do that as often in the NHL, his hockey IQ and compete level should give him a good chance of success.
Goals Goals Goals
Beyond being a strong playmaker, Phillips has a wicked shot in his arsenal too. Pair that with his hands and incredible skating that we’ve already seen so much of, and you have a player poised for success at the highest level. From the first clip here, you can see just how strong his shot is, and how quickly he can one time it right into the top of the net.
And obviously, guess who make that whole play happen? Phillips of course, who made the pass to another up and coming Flames prospect, Mathias Emilio Pettersen. Now check out this next clip, which shows off his slick hands in tight, strong skating ability along with his shot.
He makes the first pass across the ice, then keeps his feet moving right to the front of the net and is open for the pass. From there, he evades a poke check and a swinging pad in order to tuck the puck past the goaltender and into the back of the net. Not bad for a guy was drafted in the sixth round.
Ok, but where do you slot him in?
Phillips has been making the types of plays that coaches love. His play off-the-puck has been as strong as his play on it. He plays a smart style of hockey, finishes his checks, and makes the game look easy. It is not a coincidence that he’s consistently highlighted in clip after clip. What could be really good for him is facing a new challenge.
The easy solution would be to put him on the taxi squad, and assign a player like Zac Rinaldo back down to Stockton. However, this means that Phillips wouldn’t be getting playing time, which would impact his development. If the Flames are ready to call him up, they need to be able to play him in the lineup. Here is where is gets tricky.
The weakest link right now on the Flames’ lineup seems to be Brett Ritchie. The top line of him with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan has struggled at 5v5, and is the only Flames line below 50% expected goals for percentage. However, if the Flames were to move Ritchie out of the lineup, they have the same issue that they have had all season long: who plays on that right wing?
Josh Leivo has made a strong case for himself in that spot by driving the play in both zones. Had he scored a few more goals, putting him in that spot might have been an easier decision. It’s hard to justify a move that doesn’t result in actual goals for the line that’s supposed to score most often. However, it’s a tweak that enables the Flames to figure out what they have in their prospects too.
The Flames could slot Phillips in on the bottom line and give him a chance to get accustomed to the speed of the NHL game. As great as he could be as a right shot right winger alongside Gaudreau and Monahan, he almost certainly is not ready for that level of responsibility quite yet.
The Heat play Laval for the next three games, having picked up an overtime loss last night. Meanwhile the Flames play Toronto back to back at the weekend then head up to Ottawa for two against the Senators. It might be the best time to try Phillips in the lineup, as it is a low-risk proposition given how the Flames’ offence needs to immediately improve.
It gives the team the chance to play around with the winger on the Gaudreau & Monahan line, as Ritchie does not seem to be the best fit so far. It also gives them an opportunity to really evaluate whether Phillips can be an NHL player. He is clearly too good for the AHL, so it’s about time we see what he can do in the big leagues.
Photo credits: Calgary Sun