The Calgary Flames certainly look different than they did last year. Their storied offseason was one for the ages, Brad Treliving executing a series of calculated moves in an attempt to rejuvenate the roster and core and allow the Flames to continue their pursuit of a Stanley Cup championship.
With a roster as deep as they come, just one top-nine forward slot remained open in training camp, with several players fiercely competing to earn it.
The obvious choices as camp began were AHL standout and 2017 first rounder Jakob Pelletier, PTO candidate Sonny Milano, and 6’8″ Czech behemoth Adam Klapka.
Lost in the shuffle was 2016 sixth-round pick Matthew Phillips.
He’s not lost in the shuffle anymore.
The Matthew Phillips story
Phillips is an easy player to cheer for in general, but even more so for Flames fans. He grew up in Calgary playing minor hockey with the Calgary Buffaloes, before moving to Victoria to play for the Royals in the WHL.
He served as their captain and is among their franchise leaders in almost every statistical category. Of course, the most intriguing part of Phillips’ story is the struggle he endured to make it to the NHL.
Standing at jut 5’7″, he is among the shortest players in professional hockey in North America. There were only three others in the NHL at that height or below last season. Decades ago, Phillips would have probably been turned away from hockey at a young age, despite his skill and motor, solely because of his height. Now, there is a changing of the guard in the NHL, and Phillips has a real shot to make and stay on an NHL roster this season.
If he makes the team this year, he’ll be in elite company with other short kings.
Aaron Vickers of the Daily Hive noted that Phillips could have a very similar path to the NHL as current Vegas Golden Knight Jonathan Marchessault. Marchessault is also “undersized” at 5’9″, also played four AHL seasons before making the show, and he put up 67 points in 68 AHL games in his last AHL season. Phillips finished with 68 points in 65 games last season.
The similarities are plentiful.
Phillips has been a standout at training camp sessions each day so far. But, where he’s really made his mark is in his first preseason game in Vancouver over the weekend.
Because it was a split squad game, there was a clear tilt in talent between the home Canucks and the visiting Flames. The Canucks rolled out bonafied NHLers in Vasily Podkolzin, Conor Garland, Tyler Myers, Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, Ilya Mikheyev, and Luke Schenn among others. The Flames on the other hand, rolled out a top line of Milan Lucic, Kevin Rooney, and Brett Ritchie.
The third line featured Phillips alongside Cole Schwindt and Jakob Pelletier, a clear AHL line and one that could be the top line for the Calgary Wranglers this season.
That is not what happened on the ice however.
Phillips was by all accounts the Flames’ best forward in the game. He was tenacious, went to the dirty areas, and really made an impact every shift. He showed off his puck skills dancing around opposing players and really made his presence felt. It didn’t feel like he was 5’7″; you don’t often see players of that stature crashing the net and digging in the corners, but that’s exactly what Phillips did.
His big highlight was the final play of the game. On a power play in overtime, Phillips orchestrated the winning goal scored by Michael Stone with a gorgeous pass cross-ice. Setting up one-timers in the offensive zone is one of Phillips’ specialties, and it was on full display on that play.
On the analytics side of the game, Phillips was one of the strongest players on the ice, for both teams.
He finished with a whopping 75% CF, 52% xGF, and 50% in SCF and HDCF. In a third line role, he did a phenomenal job making the most of his puck touches and giving the Flames a boost every time he stepped onto the ice.
Phillips looks NHL-ready.
After grinding in the AHL for four seasons, it looks like Phillips is ready for the next step.
Phillips’ fit with the Flames
What makes this year’s campaign so interesting for Phillips is that he fills that top-nine spot like a glove—on paper. Throw out his height, and there really isn’t much you can dispute about him deserving a chance to play in that spot.
In all likelihood, it will be a right wing spot alongside Andrew Mangiapane and Nazem Kadri on the second line. With two elite linemates that both drive possession at the highest of levels, their third must be a solid possession player himself, be able to complement their skill, and bring a level of fight to match the energy.
Phillips checks all those boxes. On top of that, Darryl Sutter has told us many times that he prefers duos rather than lines in his forward group. So far, it looks like Mangiapane/Kadri is one of those duos, Elias Lindholm and Jonathan Huberdeau is another, and Mikael Backlund and Blake Coleman is the third. It’s important for the complementary wingers to have the ability to play on any of those lines and fit in with any of those duos.
It’s hard to say that Phillips wouldn’t be able to do that effectively based on his skillset and what he brings to the table.
The biggest attribute that Phillips has over his competitors for that spot like Milano and Pelletier is that he shoots right. If the Flames open their season with a top line of Huberdeau, Lindholm, and Tyler Toffoli, the only other right shot on the roster will be either Trevor Lewis or Brett Ritchie (only one will probably play at a time). There is a serious imbalance on shots in the forward group right now, something immediately fixed by adding Phillips.
Phillips is getting noticed
It’s not just fans who have noticed how much Phillips is standing out at camp this year. Yesterday, the Flames opted to have Phillips join Mangiapane and Kadri on a line in camp, no accident after his incredible preseason performance.
Phillips plays again tonight, as do Milano and Pelletier, and it will be up to him to continue to separate himself from the pack.