Some of the league’s best little players have made their way through the Flames organization over the years. Theoren Fleury, Martin St. Louis and now Johnny Gaudreau have all donned the flaming C and all of them were acquired late in the draft (ninth round and fourth round picks for Fleury and Gaudreau) or for nothing at all (St. Louis signed as a free agent).
So there’s a notable tradition of giving the little guy a chance in Calgary. That may be why the team was drawn to the diminutive Matthew Phillips in the sixth round this past June. The 5’6″, 140 lb. native Calgarian rivals Gaudreau as the smallest player ever drafted by the organization, but he also has a similar array of high end offensive skills.
A brief history
The WHL’s rookie of the year managed 37 goals and 76 points and, like Gaudreau, has the ability to dance around bigger opponents or find teammates in traffic with his above average vision. Before he was putting up points for the Victoria Royals, however, Phillips was turning heads in Calgary’s minor hockey system despite his small stature.
In 2012-13 with the AAA Bantam Bisons, Phillips managed 66 goals and 119 points in just 50 games, leading his club in scoring by a full 15 points as a 14-year-old. To put those numbers in context, 2015 first round pick Nick Merkley scored 68 goals and 118 points in 56 games when he led the Bisons in scoring just a year earlier.
Nevertheless, Phillips’ path to the WHL was a bit longer than other high-end prospects like Merkley. He spent another two years in the Calgary system putting up points with the AAA Midget Buffaloes before getting summoned to the junior ranks. Picked by the Royals 33rd overall on the 2013 Bantam Draft, Phillips’ size was no doubt the primary reason the Royals decided to leave him in midget for his 16-year-old season.
The decision may have been the right one. Phillips crushed the AMHL in his second season with the Buffs and then was the best freshman in the entire WHL just a year later.
Luckily, my good friend Alex Le is the Calgary Buffaloes Athletic Trainer. I asked him some questions about Phillips’ time with the team.
KW: You’ve been the athletic trainer for the Calgary Buffaloes for many years now. Where would you rank Matt Phillips all time in terms of the players you’ve worked with at the AAA level?
AL: I’ve worked with many great players over the past eight years at the Buffaloes such as Nick Merkley, Brayden Point and Morgan Klimchuk, Brycen Martin, Carsen Twarynski… just to name a few. I would have to say that I would have to put Matt in the top three because of his skill, hockey IQ, leadership qualities and personality (on and off the ice). It’s so hard to specifically pinpoint his ranking though as each player is so unique. My top three (in no specific order) are: Point, Merkley and Phillips. Just imagine that line!
KW: What would you say are Matt’s biggest strengths or assets?
AL: His speed is explosive, his hands are silky (especially when he’s close in with an opponent), his hockey IQ, and not fearing the dirty areas (no matter how big his opponent is). You can’t deter him with size or hits.
KW: Aside from size, is there any flaw to Matt’s game?
AL: In my personal opinion, I always thought that he needed to improve his shooting (strength and accuracy) and start shooting from further out (instead of dangling all the way into the crease). I just thought as a smaller player, the higher the level, the harder it would be to get into the paint. He proved me wrong almost every game and still does now!
KW: How would you describe Matt personally? What was he like to work with?
AL: He is an amazing all around young man that is mature beyond his age. I got to work with him for a total of three years. First two years were in Bantam AAA and the third year was in Major Midget AAA. He was very low maintenance and a tough young man. He bounced back after every bump and bruise and never gave up.
On the ice he is always giving it his all at practice or in a game. In the dressing room, others looked to him for leadership and inspiration. Before a game he is the most focused person in the room. He really understands teamwork and being a team player. Off the ice he is usually smiling and having fun. If I had to choose two words to describe him it would be “humble and confident”.
KW: Did you think Matt would have a future in the NHL when he played for the Buffs?
AL: I always root for my boys to achieve their goals. I didn’t know if he could make it because of his size, but with the way the game has changed I thought he just needed the right person to look beyond his size and see his impact on the ice. I honestly thought the transition to the WHL would be harder for him, but he surprised myself (and I think a lot of others) at how well he did in his rookie year.
KW: Do you have a Matt Phillips memory or play that stands out from his time with the Buffs?
AL: First – Bantam AAA – At the John Reid Memorial Invitational Tournament in St. Albert.
I forget the team we were playing, but they were trying to run Matt as much as they can. Matt is a slippery kid and he would duck and twist his way to dodge the hits. The other team couldn’t touch him after the first. The coaches on the other team called the refs over for a discussion. The refs then came over to us and told us that Matt was to not dodge any more hits or they would call a penalty on him. Yeah, how ridiculous was that?
Second – Major Midget AAA – At the Mac’s Midget Tournament.
We were playing our last game in the round robin match-ups against the Regina Pats. They were significantly bigger than most of our boys, so they were towering over Bubba. During our pre-game (off ice) warm up, the Pats made sure to tell us how small our boys were and what they would do to the boys on the ice and specifically what they would do to Phillips. Even as we waited for the puck to drop in the first they still reminded Phillips what they would do to him.
This just fuelled Phillips to compete even harder and we watched him dominate the Pats from every part of the ice. They were big but slow and couldn’t keep up with Phillips or the rest of our team. Seeing how irritated Mike Sillinger (one of the Pats’ coaches) was because of Bubba’s skill, speed and dominance will always last in my memory.
Gregg Drinnan of The Coaches Site and Guy Flaming of The Pipeline Show echo many of Alex’s thoughts on Phillips.
First, Gregg Drinnan:
“The WHL’s rookie of the year for 2015-16 may be the league’s most exciting player. Phillips is listed at 5-foot-6 (Victoria Royals) or 5-foot-7 (Elite Prospects); perhaps he’s 5-foot-5. It doesn’t matter because he plays like a much bigger man. He is the best small man to skate in the WHL since Theo Fleury. Phillips doesn’t have Fleury’s grit or mean streak, but it’s a different game now and a small guy doesn’t necessarily need to know how to use his stick as a skewer.
“A fearless player, Phillips is a terrific skater and he absolutely loves to score. He is responsible defensively and rarely is slow getting back, but he needs to work on being more effective while in his zone, something that almost certainly will come with experience. Phillips isn’t likely to get a whole lot bigger, but he will get stronger. That will only help this small package play even bigger.”
And next, Guy Flaming:
“Matthew Phillips was a treat to watch this past season, his rookie year in the WHL. Corey Graham, play-by-play guy for the Oil Kings, told me after his team went on a BC trip that Phillips was unbelievable. I hadn’t had a chance to see him with my own eyes so I was excited for the Royals to visit Edmonton. I wasn’t disappointed at all. Sure he’s tiny but many what a ton of skill and a motor that never quits.
“He’s quick on his feet, his hands are fast and his hockey IQ is fantastic. Controls the power play and likes to attack. Really intrigued to see how he follows up his rookie season after he put up more than a point per game. In my mind, Phillips has the potential to be a real 2016 draft steal for the Flames in the sixth round.”
What comes next?
He’s come a long way already, but Phillips still has a lot left to prove in order to really become a prospect of note. Going back to our Gaudreau comparison, Johnny was a pretty good value pick when he was chosen, but it was his remarkable development after his draft year that made him a blue chipper in the Flames’ system. Phillips will likely see another two years in the WHL at least before moving up to the pro ranks, so he has time to continue to grow and develop.
Obviously comparing Phillips to Gaudreau is unfair for the younger player. The latter is an extremely rare talent, the sort of outlier no one should expect to replicate. That said, Phillips will have to take solid, consistent steps forward each and every year in order to stay on the radar given his size disadvantage. He doesn’t have to become a generational scorer at the amateur level like Gaudreau did, but he’ll need to outpace expectations if he is to stay on an NHL track. Little guys always have to put up big numbers in order to be taken seriously at the next level.
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