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Photo Credit: courtesy Calgary Flames/NHL Media

Prospect wrap-up: Matthew Phillips

It’s hard to summarize Matthew Phillips in any other way than how Byron Bader described him back when he wrote Phillips’ draft target profile: darkhorse. But first, some words about other, slightly related things.

Height is a preference in the NHL. Unlike basketball or football, there’s no advantage to being tall. Those games operate in three dimensions; you can use the vertical space to achieve the objective of the sport. Being taller than the opposition offers an advantage. Having a 7’4″ centre in the NBA is great because that’s more rebounds and more easy buckets. All else being equal, pick the tall guy.

There’s very little to suggest that the same is true in the NHL. There’s no extra points for heading the puck into the net (I’m pretty sure it’s illegal, and actually doesn’t count as a goal). The game is a grounded one. The action happens on the surface. There’s a reason the most basic advice is to keep your stick on the ice.

There is no actual advantage to being tall in hockey. The connection between height and winning is weak, at best. A very high percentage of smaller players are impact players compared to taller peers. But NHL teams are still avoiding drafting short.

As you get further and further into the draft, you will find more flawed players. It’s about what flaws you’re willing to live with. Recently, the Flames have decided that height is that “flaw,” if you can even call it that. Perhaps Johnny Gaudreau changed their minds, although Theo Fleury should’ve been the one to do that.

So in the sixth round of consecutive years, they went high scoring and short. And for the second consecutive year, it is looking like a great pick.

A brief history

The last time the local product was below a point-per-game, the year was 2011. He was still fifth in scoring on his team. Throughout his AAA career, he lead his team in scoring twice, and placed top 10 in league scoring twice. His 2013 season was particularly great, as he finished sixth in the AMBHL in scoring. That got the attention of WHL scouts, and he went #33 overall to the Victoria Royals in the WHL Bantam draft.

His rookie season unjustifiably went under the radar. With 76 points in 72 games (19th overall in the league), the rookie goalscoring lead (37), and the rookie of the year award, he (fortunately) fell to the Flames in the sixth round. To demonstrate how nuts that is, the last time a non-goalie WHL ROTY didn’t go in the first round after winning, the year was 1995. Of the 17 WHL forwards selected ahead of him, 15 scored less than he did, and one of those was an overager.

2016-17 performance

GP-G-A-P Primary Points 5v5 P1 NHLe
70-50-40-90 81 49 28.47

Enough complaining. Let’s celebrate Phillips on his own.

In 2016-17, he scored 50 goals, tied for third overall in the WHL. He led his team in scoring, beating the next best player by 18 points. Phillips finished 10th WHL-wide in total points and fourth in primary points. He was good, is what I’m saying.

Throughout the season, he was consistent and he got better. Somehow, the chart still does not show how good Phillips was. 28.47 was his final NHLe, which is a meh number for someone in their D+1 year. However, if you only look at primary points, his NHLe would be 25.3.

Phillips didn’t rack up the secondary points because, well, his team wasn’t great. If you can think back to the concerns surrounding Matt Tkachuk and the fact that he had too many secondary assists. The red flags were raised because people felt Tkachuk was benefiting from a great team and had an inflated points total. However, people skipped over the fact that he also had 66 primary points, which (as we now know) was the more important and telling fact about him. For Phillips, it is the opposite. His lower numbers are from the fact that he is the Victoria offence.

Let’s go through this by looking at Phillip’s big achievement this year. A few weeks ago, Ryan looked at Phillips’ then impending 50-goal milestone. Based on that list, you would be right to feel that Phillips did not have good cohorts in this regard. He was lumped in with people who were carried by their teams, got extensive powerplay time, and/or were older. Due to a combination of these things, these guys never came that close to the NHL.

However, Phillips is different. Instead of being carried by his team to 50 goals, he carried his team and collected 50 goals along the way. Here’s a comparison of age, primary point percentage, and contributions to offence, both regular and 5v5.

Player Age (Oct 1) P1/P% % of team offence % of team 5v5 offence
Matthew Phillips 18.468 90% 39.23% 37.53%
Dryden Hunt 19.855 76.72% 46.77% 45.51%
Oliver Bjorkstrand 19.475 81.36% 50.35% 46.22%
Oliver Bjorkstrand 18.475 78.90% 33.95% 27.73%
Cole Sanford 19.197 80% 35.34% 34.25%
Mitch Holmberg 20.562 88.98% 49.17% 36.84%
Todd Fiddler 20.244 80.61% 25.71% (MJ)/52.33%(PG) 24.3%/42.03%
Emerson Etem 19.292 93.46% 47.03% 42.60%
Brendan Shinnimin 20.734 76.87% 46.38% 39.95%
Ty Rattie 18.656 81.81% 38.97% 30.84%
Adam Hughesman 20.593 75.86% 41.58% 38.29%
Tyler Wong 20.593 75.70% 40.16% 37.79%
Tyler Steenbergen 18.734 88.89% 36.59% 32.76%
Sam Steel 18.662 73.64% 39.87% 34.62%
Jayden Halbgewachs 19.526 75.25% 40.48% 36.02%

Phillips is eye-poppingly good. He’s the youngest of this list, has the highest % of 5v5 offence for 18-year-olds, has the second highest primary points to points ratio (again, highest among 18-year-olds). He’s better than Bjorkstrand and Rattie, the two closest historical comparisons. He tracks very closely to Sam Steel, a first round pick last year.

Simply put, Phillips, as an 18-year-old, has taken over a team the same way you expect a 19- or 20-year-old to. He singlehandedly dragged the Royals kicking and screaming into the playoffs. The kid is good.

Final thoughts

About that playoffs thing: Victoria is going to get smoked and it won’t be pretty. They face the Everett Silvertips, a team they haven’t beat all year. Not only that, the games weren’t even that close. Matt Phillips’ season will end prematurely, but not for a lack of trying. We may be able to see him in the AHL on an ATO, so there’re always silver linings.

Phillips will get at least one more season in the WHL. Maybe next year, he will get the respect he deserved. He’s truly one of the WHL’s hidden gems. Ask anyone who’s had the chance to see him play live, and they’ll tell you just how bonkers he is. Phillips lit up the league by himself and barely got any consideration, in the press, for the international team, anything.

  • The Doctor

    Saw him play on TV a few weeks ago, and he looked really, really good. The kind of player that you notice as soon as he steps on the ice. Good speed, stickhandling, playmaking and shooting. And he really knows how to work the powerplay, Jonathan Drouin-like.

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    I watched him play against the Hurricanes in Lethbridge a while back. There was only a few seconds left in the period and the Hurricanes defensemen was all alone moving it out of the zone with a ton of options to do it cleanly. Phillips pressured him with a little deke fake that through the defender off and he coughed it up right to him. Phillips stole the puck from him and went in on a breakaway and scored. Literally less than 5 seconds left in the period. He had some good looks on the powerplay throughout the game as well. I was impressed.

  • L13

    The emphasis on secondary assists vs primary points in Phillips posts has been pretty misleading because the WHL (and the CHL in general) is terrible at assigning primary and secondary assists correctly.

    Phillips is probably up there in primary points because of his high goalscoring, but I wouldn’t put too much weight on the exact number of secondary assists or his P1 NHLe.