Calgary Flames

Three ways the Calgary Flames can lineup with Matthew Phillips

After being the Stockton Heat’s best skater last season, the Wranglers’ best skater this season, and the AHL’s best point producer and goal scorer so far, the Calgary Flames have finally called up Matthew Phillips to the NHL. It has been a long time coming for the former sixth round pick from 2016, who has deserved a look at the next level for some time. We have written about it here, here, here, here, here, and here just to name a few.

This add coincides with the Flames choosing to waive Kevin Rooney who has really struggled this season. This move opens up a spot on the fourth line for someone to take, and whether that means moving Matthew Phillips into the bottom line or someone else down, the Flames have some big questions to answer.

The biggest argument against calling up Phillips for the Flames has been his deployment. Standing 5’8″ and weighing in at 165 pounds (140 pounds is where he was some time back), the Flames would likely not want him in a fourth line role. However, being a rookie with one NHL game under his belt, the team will likely want to deploy him against weaker opposition as opposed to playing him against their opponents’ top skaters. Here are three ways that the Flames can use Phillips.

Fourth line Phillips

Jonathan HuberdeauElias LindholmTyler Toffoli
Andrew MangiapaneNazem KadriDillon Dube
Adam RuzickaMikael BacklundBlake Coleman
Milan LucicTrevor LewisMatthew Phillips
Brett Ritchie

This is the lowest risk/lowest reward way of getting Phillips into the Flames’ lineup. It allows the team to keep their three top lines together to continue building chemistry, and to allow what is working to keep working. It also helps solve the immediate need in the lineup: getting the fourth line moving by adding speed and scoring to the lineup.

Phillips may be small but he is incredibly tenacious. He has no fear of getting into the corners or fighting his way to the front of the net at every level of hockey he has played. He has always been one of, if not the smallest player on his team, and he has succeeded because he has been able to get to the danger areas of the ice. Playing him alongside a player like Lucic may give him the added confidence that Dube got in the 2019–20 playoffs, when the two of them formed a dynamic line with former Flame Sam Bennett.

This also eases Phillips into the NHL by giving him 5 to 8 minutes of icetime a night to acclimatize to the speed of the NHL game. It is an enormous jump from the AHL to the NHL, but this gives Phillips a chance to play against other teams’ bottom-six players primarily and really get his feet under him before giving him added responsibility.

The downsides with this strategy are obvious. Phillips is an offensive forward with way more to give than to be a bottom-line guy in the NHL. This is both not great for his development but also not great for the team who are playing him in a crash-and-bang role. And while he will certainly relish any NHL role he is given, this is probably not the best fit for him.

It also doesn’t help the Flames who have really struggled to generate high quality looks on net this season. Phillips can help do that both as a scorer and as a playmaker, but will need to be put it a better position in the lineup to do so.

The Backlund Bump

Jonathan HuberdeauElias LindholmTyler Toffoli
Andrew MangiapaneNazem KadriDillon Dube
Adam RuzickaMikael BacklundMatthew Phillips
Milan LucicTrevor LewisBlake Coleman
Brett Ritchie

If the Flames have one cheat code in their organization it is the ability of Mikael Backlund to make the players on his line look substantially better than they do away from him. Everyone from Trevor Lewis to Matthew Tkachuk and even Austin Czarnik looked substantially better on Backlund’s wing than away from him.

This season, the prime recipient of the Backlund Bump has been Adam Ruzicka, who has looked good nearly everywhere he has played, but has looked exceptionally good on the third line. The trio with Blake Coleman has been one of the Flames’ top two-way lines, and Ruzicka has quickly become one of the team’s most dependable goal scorers at 5v5. This is no accident.

As good as Coleman is, he would be a really good fit on the fourth line with Lucic and Lewis, allowing the team to continue to utilize a gritty bottom line but also one which has substantially more skill. This then allows the Flames to insert Phillips into the third line, giving them even more offensive upside and sheltering him alongside Backlund.

Phillips has a ton of offensive upside, but he is also a really good two-way player, able to play well at both ends of the ice. He also has a ton of chemistry already with Ruzicka, with the two of them having spent a couple of seasons together in Stockton with the Heat. There is a strong understanding between the two, and Ruzicka’s initial call-up was a result of being fed so well by Phillips on his wing. Throw the two of them with Backlund and you have the makings of a very good third line.

While this strategy does break-up the Flames’ best two-way line, the offensive upside coupled with limited defensive downside is a risk worth exploring further.

Tiny, Tiny, and Kadri

Jonathan HuberdeauElias LindholmTyler Toffoli
Andrew MangiapaneNazem KadriMatthew Phillips
Adam RuzickaMikael BacklundBlake Coleman
Milan LucicTrevor LewisDillon Dube
Brett Ritchie

The line of Mangiapane, Kadri, and Dube has had its ups and downs, but the one piece that has struggled most has been Dube, who really hasn’t taken that next step in his game to this point. He has had some moments where he has looked like an elite middle six performer, while others where he has looked very much like the third player on the line.

Moving Dube off of this line and adding Phillips would make a ton of sense. Kadri and Mangiapane both have a nose for the net, and adding Phillips would give them another strong playmaker to feed them in front. He is a pest to play against as well, with a penchant for getting to the crease for tips and screens, while also being hard-nosed in the corners like Mangiapane and Kadri do. The three play a similar brand of hockey, and all three together could add a very good two-way unit to the Flames.

This also keeps the team’s top line and their top two-way line intact, allowing the Flames to use this as an offensive group against the second and third lines of their opponents, allowing some degree of sheltering but also giving Phillips a real chance to succeed in the NHL this season.

The downsides are two-fold. First, it sends the message that Dube is worth sacrificing for Phillips, and that the Flames feel his best position is to be on the bottom line. This is obviously not great for a younger guy who could really benefit from some more reps with Kadri and Mangiapane. However, he has been successful with Lucic before, and this may build more of his confidence up.

Second, and perhaps more worriesome for Coach Darryl Sutter, this forms a very small line for the team. Kadri would be the tallest player on the line at 6’0″, then putting him with Mangiapane (5’10”) and Phillips (5’8″) would be a small group that risks being dominated by a larger line. This is likely not a huge issue with the amount of speed and tenacity that all three play with, but it is likely a risk seen by a coach like Sutter.

What makes most sense?

With there being basically no chance that the Flames move Phillips to the top line and barring any injuries that would move him from the right wing, the best option is to put Phillips with Ruzicka and Backlund. This adds more skill to the bottom line, allowing Coleman to really feast as a skilled bottom line player with Lucic and Lewis (or Radim Zohorna if rumours are to be believed). it also may be the key to solving Milan Lucic’s scoring woes, which have been a cause for concern this season.

On top of that, it allows Phillips the greatest chance of success by playing him with Backlund. This eases his transition into the NHL by pairing him with an elite centre, and allows the team to utilize this group as a good two-way option with more offensive upside. Both he and Ruzicka have played together before, and this will bring comfort and familiarity to Phillips, who has played in just one NHL game in his career.

Finally, it allows the Flames to continue to keep their top two lines together. With Mangiapane on a heater right now and the top line of Toffoli, Lindholm, and Huberdeau really building chemistry together, this plan does not disrupt that at all. The Flames will need to get more out of both of these lines if they do move Coleman down the rotation to the fourth line, but the Flames have managed to turn Jonathen Huberdeau into a very good two-way player alongside Elias Lindholm and Tyler Toffoli that they should be fine to handle most teams without having to rely too heavily on the Backlund group.

At the end of the day, this is probably the one opportunity that the Flames will have to really evaluate what they have in Phillips. There are a lot of prospects knocking on the door in Calgary, and the team will want to know definitively if they have an NHLer in him or just a really good AHL guy. The worst thing that they could do is decide it’s probably the latter, lose him, and then another team discover that he’s a very good NHLer, like what happened with an certain Finnish defenceman who shall not be named. To do this, the Flames will need to put Phillips in a position to really succeed, and the best way to do that is to pair him with Backlund and Ruzicka.

Photo by Candice Ward/Calgary Wranglers

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