During Brad Treliving’s tenure as Calgary Flames general manager, the club has begun a pattern of sorts in terms of their late round picks. They’ve drafted a few big players and a few European players, but they’ve also invested heavily in a surprisingly lucrative portfolio of smaller, skilled players with insane offensive numbers.
The 2015 draft produced Andrew Mangiapane. The 2016 crop netted them Victoria Royals sniper Matthew Phillips, who’s quietly become one of the most feared snipers in Canadian major junior hockey. He’s our 12th-ranked prospect this year, up from 15th last year.
A brief history
Phillips, a Calgary kid, came up through local minor hockey and plied his trade for the Bisons in bantam and the Buffaloes in midget. His offensive numbers were impressive, but there was no way he was going to be able to translate it in the WHL. A second round selection by Victoria in the 2013 Bantam Draft, the hope was he’d be a productive contributor despite his size.
After an impressive two game appetizer in the 2014-15 WHL campaign, Phillips blew the doors off the Dub in 2015-16. His first season in major junior was his first year of NHL Draft eligibility, which can often be a recipe for disaster as players try to learn nuances and adjust to the size and speed of the WHL while also trying to look impressive for the scouts. Phillips? He had 37 goals and 76 points in 72 games, good enough to capture the WHL’s Rookie of the Year award. He fell to the Flames in the sixth round of the 2016 NHL Draft, primarily because he’s a small lad.
In his draft+1 season, Phillips was even better. He had 50 goals and 90 points in 70 games, good enough to be named a First Team All-Star at year’s end. He made his pro debut in a brief stint with the Stockton Heat, getting an assist in his lone regular season appearance before going pointless in two playoff games. (If you want to nitpick, he looked a bit lost in the intensity of the AHL playoffs but a good deal of that might have been fatigue from a WHL playoff series with Everett that involved the longest game in Canadian major junior history.)
The exciting thing about Phillips is how well he stacks up against his WHL competition, even when you eliminate the benefit of the time and space provided to him on the power play. Typically, smaller players really rely on power play time to dish the puck and create offense – Brayden Burke is an example of this. Phillips was 10th in the WHL in points and one of five players with 50 goals scored, one goal shy of a share of the league lead. His 33 power play points were modest compared to the other league leaders, but his even strength production was pretty impressive given its context: he was sixth in the WHL in five-on-five primary points and fourth in goals – and everyone who produced more than him at even strength was older. Compared to his age group, Phillips was one of the most productive offensive players in the WHL and he more than doubled his even strength goal-scoring from his rookie season.
Oh, and he tormented the Calgary Hitmen during his first trip to town as a Flames prospect.
The Kelowna Daily Courier’s Larry Fisher had very positive impressions of Victoria’s baby-faced assassin.
The Flames prospect I’ve bonded with the most over the past two seasons, Phillips is impossible not to like — on and off the ice — and you can’t help but root for this kid. The scout in me saw something special in my initial viewings and I knew Central Scouting was missing out by leaving Phillips off their mid-season list for the 2016 draft. Good on Calgary for taking a chance on the hometown boy and Phillips didn’t disappoint in scoring 50 goals as a sophomore this past season after being named the WHL’s rookie of the year. Phillips has big game, but the fact is he’s tiny — not small, but tiny… even compared to Johnny Gaudreau.
ESPN 710 Seattle writer Andy Eide had a similar assessment of Phillips’ game.
Speed is the name of the game for the undersized Phillips. He only stands 5’6 but exploded for 50 goals during his second season in the WHL with the Victoria Royals. Despite his size, he’s not afraid of the corners and his quickness gets him out of trouble while putting pressure on the opposing defense. He sees the ice well, is a finisher and should be in the mix to lead the WHL in scoring – he finished 10th with 90 points in 2016-17 – this coming season.
Fisher seems a bit bullish on Phillips’ pro potential because of his tenacity and drive, despite his size.
Phillips is fearless, driving the net as hard as any power forward in the WHL and not shying away from the corners either. That might get him hurt somewhere down the road as a pro, but you have to admire Phillips’ dogged determination. As they say, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog. It’s been fun watching Phillips and Dube go head-to-head as key players in the Victoria-Kelowna rivalry, with Dube delivering a bit of a headshot on Phillips in their final meeting of the regular season, though I’m sure they’ve laughed it off by now.
What comes next?
Phillips won’t turn 20 until the spring, so he’s back in the WHL for one more – possibly final – season.
He’ll be expected to once again be the focal point of Victoria’s offense (for a new coach this year after Dave Lowry’s hiring by the Los Angeles Kings) and one of the most feared offensive players in the WHL. He’s on the radar for Team Canada’s entry at the upcoming World Juniors. Considering his prodigious offensive production, the hometown boy factor and that the Flames have until June 1 to sign him, it’s a smart bet that he’ll be inked to an entry-level deal before too long.
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