Matthew Phillips relishing AHL All-Star weekend as unrestricted free agency approaches
Photo credit:Matt Garies / Arena du Rocket Inc.
By Mike Gould1 month ago
It’s been a season of firsts for Calgary Wranglers forward Matthew Phillips.
Back in November 2022, the 24-year-old winger was named the AHL Player of the Month for the first time in his career. He appeared in his first two meaningful NHL games with the Calgary Flames in December. Most importantly, he’s first in the entire AHL with 24 goals in 38 games.
That trend continued on Sunday evening when Phillips took to the ice at Place Bell in Laval, QC for his first-ever All-Star event — at any level. Phillips took part in the Rapid Fire, Pass & Score, and Breakaway Relay events in front of a jam-packed crowd at the RONA 2023 AHL Skills Competition.
“I’ve actually never done it,” Phillips told reporters a few hours before Sunday’s spectacle. “Sometimes teams do their own stuff but I’ve never done one, so, we’ll see.
“My mom’s trying to get out here from Newfoundland right now but the snowstorm has other ideas,” Phillips continued. “Hopefully she’s here by tomorrow. Family watching back home, they’re super excited. It’s just a cool thing to be a part of.”
First of all, we can pass along some good news: Phillips’ mother and cousin have indeed made it to Laval with just enough time to get settled before Monday’s All-Star Classic.
Phillips won’t be the only Calgary representative vying for glory on Team Pacific. Wranglers head coach Mitch Love will be behind the bench; Dustin Wolf, the reigning AHL Goaltender of the Year, will split crease duties with the San Diego Gulls’ Lukas Dostal. (Don’t be surprised to see both Wolf and Phillips in Love’s starting lineup on Monday).
Had the COVID-19 pandemic not wiped out a couple years’ worth of AHL All-Star festivities, Phillips likely would’ve entered this weekend with one or two appearances already in his back pocket. As it is, every step he takes on the ice this weekend will represent a new first for his career — and the same goes for Wolf, another first-time All-Star.
“All the top players in the [AHL] are here,” Phillips said. “Plenty of guys graduate from here and go on to play in the NHL. It’s a cool thing and I’m pretty honoured to be a part of it.”
Phillips has looked plenty comfortable in his first full season playing in front of his hometown fans. Flames, Wranglers, and Stockton Heat jerseys bearing his name are downright common at the Scotiabank Saddledome on AHL game days. It’s hardly unusual to see a sizable contingent of Phillips’ family members and friends in attendance at the ‘Dome to cheer on the Wranglers.
But while this has been Phillips’ first go-round playing in his home city, the quiet, lingering truth remains that his time in Calgary could be drawing to a close. Phillips is a pending Group 6 unrestricted free agent who will be eligible to leave for greener pastures this summer — that is, if he so chooses to test the open market for the first time.
Phillips has consistently drawn fans to the Saddledome all year long with his excellent play. The Wranglers have won a ton of games and look like a legitimate threat to win the Calder Cup. By no means is there any shame in being a superstar forward in the second-best hockey league in the world, particularly without having to leave your familiar stomping grounds.
Even so, the NHL beckons. Phillips isn’t going to get the big-league trial run he deserves in Calgary while Darryl Sutter remains at the helm. The Flames aspire to contend, they favour experienced veterans over relatively unknown quantities, and — all else being equal — they generally prefer big to small. Phillips is generously listed by the AHL at 5’8″ and 160 pounds.
Keep an eye on the Seattle Kraken as a potential suitor for Phillips this coming summer. Dave Lowry, his old Victoria Royals, currently serves on Dave Hakstol’s staff and Seattle is known for its unorthodox methods and willingness to take chances on overlooked players.
One thing upon which pretty much every onlooker can agree: Phillips’ skillset isn’t exactly tailor-made for the Hardest Shot competition. Mercifully, the AHL elected not to include Phillips in that event on Sunday — although that didn’t stop him and his Calgary companions from guessing how he’d fare.
“Maybe 75 [miles per hour], as the maximum,” Wolf laughed. “There’s not enough flex in that guy’s stick, he cuts it down too far. Can’t even bend it.”
“It probably wouldn’t register if I took my slap shot,” Phillips added (to which Love jokingly agreed, calling it a “muffin”). “I’m happy I’m not in that one.”
Matthew Phillips arrives on the red carpet prior to Sunday’s AHL All-Star Skills Competition at Place Bell in Laval, QC. Credit: Vitor Munhoz / Arena du Rocket Inc.
The Eastern Conference divisions ultimately captured the Skills Competition by a score of 16–10, although very few people in the arena paid close attention to the count. No matter what, the crowd erupted into deafening cheers anytime Laval Rocket forwards Alex Belzile and Anthony Richard touched the puck. Every other French-Canadian player on the ice received similar treatment.
Conversely, the audience had nothing but boos for the Toronto Marlies’ three representatives. Belleville Senators forward Egor Sokolov caught a few strays here and there. That aside, it was generally a light-hearted and entertaining affair on all sides — and, quite frankly, it put the NHL Skills Competition to shame.
Phillips’ most memorable moment of the evening came during the 3-on-0 Pass & Score event, in which he pulled a Mario Lemieux at the 2002 Winter Olympics while letting a Brett Seney pass slide right through his legs across to David Gust. If only Brandon Bussi hadn’t gotten in the way …
Phillips, Wolf, Love, and the rest of Team Pacific will compete in three mini-games at the 3-on-3 All-Star Tournament on Monday. First, they’ll take on Team North at 5:20 p.m. MT before going up against Team Atlantic at 6:10 and Team Central at 7:00.
The two best teams from the preliminary round will then go head-to-head in the final game at 7:40 p.m. MT. You’ll be able to watch the entire 2023 AHL All-Star Classic on TSN or for free online with AHL TV.
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