Over the next few weeks, The Win Column has ranked the Calgary Flames’ best prospects in advance of the 2022 NHL Draft. Next up in our prospect rankings is the fifth ranked prospect: Matthew Phillips.
Hailing out of Calgary, Phillips was selected in the sixth round at 166th overall by his hometown team 2016. Coincidentally, it’d be two consecutive years the Flames would select in that exact position—having selected Andrew Mangiapane 166th overall in 2015. In his draft year, Phillips lit up the WHL as a rookie, having scored the most goals and points for a first year player on route to winning the WHL Rookie of the Year Trophy.
Now six years later and at 24 years old, Phillips is looking to turn into an NHL player—finally transitioning out of being too good for the AHL. Phillips made his NHL debut back at the tail end of the 2020–21 season, and was subsequently left unprotected and unselected in the 2021 Expansion Draft. Still a member of the Flames after the dust settled, the primary focus was to continue his development.
Out of training camp, Phillips was fine but missed out on being named to the main NHL roster, thus returning to the Stockton Heat instead. Throughout the course of the regular season, Phillips was a top performer night in and night out, but unfortunately his chances of suiting up for an NHL game was mired by the Flames’ fortuitous track record on the injury front.
Calgary never really needed to call up a forward, and the Heat were in the middle of a historic campaign themselves. While disheartening to not see Phillips don the Flaming C, things aligned for him to continue to play major minutes in an integral role with the Heat—definitely not the worst outcome he could have had.
Now as the to-be-named and Flames AHL franchise relocates to Calgary for the 2022–23 season, things are aligning for a make-or-break type of year for Phillips in terms of his NHL potential with Calgary. It’ll be a lot easier to watch the farm team play, and playing at one’s best for the chance at a call up becomes all the more critical.
Can Phillips finally crack the NHL?
Phillips’ strengths and weaknesses
As a smaller player on every team he’s been on, Phillips more than makes up for it with his speed when he has the puck and when he’s away from it too. A player with a motor that doesn’t stop, he’s shown that he can use his size to his advantage by being elusive—similar to that of Johnny Gaudreau, a comparison Phillips has heard many times throughout his development.
His NHL profile lists him at 5’7″ and 140 lbs, whereas his more updated AHL profile has him standing at 5’8″ and 165 lbs (coincidentally the same weight as Gaudreau). While his height is uncontrollable, Phillips has clearly worked on bulking up over the years. He’ll always been one of the smallest guys on any team, but adding on more mass will help prevent him from being ran over on the ice.
Phillips is simply a part of the next generation of hockey players who know they aren’t the tallest or heaviest, but have learned how to adapt to continue to thrive on the ice.
It of course follows that despite him not seeing his size as a weakness, it presents a real barrier to getting into an NHL game. He has to be at the top of his team to get considerations—and he has been that guy—but when given the choice between players with similar production and varying statures, the bigger player will often get the nod.
However, as the Colorado Avalanche have just shown that a speedy team can run roughshod over their opponents, this could be beneficial for Phillips if the Flames opt to add speed and skill instead of size and skill to their bottom-six.
Phillips’ on-ice results
Phillips’ steady rise throughout his professional hockey career has been great to see. His latest season with the Heat saw him explode to being over a point-per-game player. If he had a performance like this the season prior, it might have even made the Kraken’s selection from Calgary all the bit more difficult instead of being the no-brainer on picking Mark Giordano.
Nearly every aspect of Phillips’ game improved as he was a staple of the first line. He was seventh in the AHL with 31 goals and ninth with 68 points. He was the only top-10 player in the AHL who didn’t slot into a single NHL game this season—the other nine all had stints although most were limited to just a couple of games.
Phillips’ next steps
Phillips is down one spot from fourth on our rankings back from 2021, but it doesn’t discount his improvement at all. There’s not much wiggle room at the top and being stuck in the AHL with no NHL ice time was his only real drawback.
Now Phillips should be spending this offseason for arguably the most important training camp of his career. He’ll have to impress with his on-ice results both on and off from the scoreboard, both with and without the puck. He’s tasked with showing the Flames that he’s a part of the next generation of players who don’t let their size negate their impact—something the Flames know all too well with their superstar unrestricted free agent.
Phillips has shown that he’s more than capable of being a top talent in the AHL. The next step is as obvious as ever for him. Translating his success at the AHL level into the NHL is Phillips’ final frontier.