You could be forgiven if you saw Matthew Phillips out of his hockey equipment and didn’t immediately think he was a high-end National Hockey League prospect. Listed by the Western Hockey League as 5’6″ and 141 pounds – he reports he’s currently 145 pounds – Phillips does not look like your prototypical hockey star off the ice.
But his on-ice talent was on full display earlier this week as he and the Victoria Royals eviscerated the Calgary Hitmen by a 7-2 score. In his first appearance in his hometown team’s barn since they drafted him in the sixth round of the 2016 NHL Draft, Phillips had four points – including a hat trick, his second in as many nights.
With the graduation of 2016 first rounder Matthew Tkachuk to the full-time NHL ranks, there’s a strong case to be made that Phillips may already be the Flames’ top prospect.
The really interesting thing about Phillips – aside from his lack of size – has been his progression through the hockey ranks over the past several seasons.
Every season since he’s been 13 – and probably before then, Elite Prospects doesn’t keep numbers that far back – Phillips has increased his offensive production. The other kids are bigger? Doesn’t matter. He’s graduating to a higher level? Doesn’t matter. He keeps improving.
He’s tearing up the WHL this season and will almost definitely be returning to its ranks for next season; since he’s a 1998-born player he won’t be old enough to play in the American Hockey League, so unless he somehow makes the Flames roster he’s back to Victoria for another campaign. Phillips’ coach Dave Lowry – who played 1,000 games in the NHL and has extensive experience coaching in the NHL and WHL – doesn’t seem that worried about complacency.
“I don’t think we’ll ever have any problem getting him to keep growing
his game,” said Lowry. “I think you just look at the player, you look at
the evolution of his game and you look at the passion and he’s one guy
that’s extremely passionate about the game, he’s a great student of the
game and he knows where he wants to go and he knows where his final
destination is. And he’s always been told that he’s an undersized guy
and he’s going to have all these challenges, but every day he just wants
to prove everybody wrong.”
Phillips credits his time at Flames training camp this past fall with giving him additional insight into what he needs to do to make it at the next level.
“You want to get better every day,” said Phillips. “Coming to main camp
here was a big eye-opening experience because you saw that there’s a lot
of work left to do. There’s always going to be a bigger gun and there’s
players that play a similar game to myself who are in the NHL. In the
NHL it’s competitive and you always have to beat other guys out. You
have to get better every day if you want a chance to play in the NHL.”
In terms of what specific things he needs to address to be successful in the future, the diminutive player readily notes something he wants to improve.
“I think just strength,” said Phillips. “The way the game is
evolving, I think speed and quickness is a good way to have success. I
think the stronger I get and the more powerful, that’s going to help me
win battles and walk out of the corners. Lower body strength is really
big. But besides that, I think just playing with confidence.”
His coach has a very similar mindset and is optimistic about Philips’ long-term potential.
“He does everything to give himself a chance,” said Lowry.
“Obviously, 145 pounds there’s some muscle that needs to go onto the
frame but keep one thing in perspective: he’s a ’98. He’s a young
player, there’s lots of time to grow his frame and if he could continue
to get stronger and make improvements this summer, carry it over and do
it for another year he gives himself a chance.”
In terms of his contractual status, it seems probable that Phillips will be signed this summer. If he’s signed once this season ends, he’ll be a 19-year-old in the eyes of the CBA and so his contract will be able to slide once – for the 2017-18 season. Then, when he’s 20, his deal would activate for the 2018-19 year.
Both contractually and in terms of physical maturity, Phillips has a lot of time to continue developing. As a sixth round selection he’s definitely a more long-term project than other players in the Flames organization, but his pure offensive output should put him squarely in the conversation with their best prospects.