Matthew Phillips didn’t have anything left to prove in the American Hockey League.
The 5’8″, 160-pound winger has had his way with the Calgary Wranglers all season long. He’s the league’s reigning Player of the Month and its current leader in both goals and points.
Now — finally — he’s back in the NHL with the Calgary Flames.
Phillips has served as an alternate captain on the farm in each of the last three seasons. He and Nick DeSimone have sported the “A” patches with the Wranglers this year; Brett Sutter has worn the “C”.
Drafted, promoted, and traded by the Flames many moons ago, Sutter returned to the organization this past summer to act as a mentor and secondary contributor for the freshly relocated Wranglers.
The veteran farmhand (and Darryl’s son) shared some perspective on what Phillips can offer the Flames after the Wranglers skated at Winsport on Thursday morning.
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“He’s earned it, first of all,” Sutter said. “He plays fearless for being a little guy. He comes to work every day and he’s the last guy off the ice. He’s got incredible skill but I think his biggest attribute is his competitiveness.”
Asked what advice he might offer Phillips as he looks to make the next step, Sutter kept it simple.
“You have to go up there and be confident and play your game. When I talk to Philly today, I’ll just tell him to enjoy it and have fun.”
Phillips, 24, has 15 goals and 30 points in 20 games with the Wranglers this season. He led the Flames’ AHL affiliate in scoring in both the 2020–21 and 2021–22 seasons. Through 219 career AHL games, Phillips has scored on 18% of his shots on goal.
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Over the years, Phillips has developed a reputation — boosted by his coaches, teammates, and onlookers — as one of the AHL’s gutsiest players. He’s never let his stature prevent him from getting to the dangerous areas of the ice.
But when he’s given time and space to operate, Phillips shifts from a grinder to a finesse player capable of embarrassing any goaltender in the AHL. He’s fully earned the opportunity to ply his trade at the next level.
The Flames saw fit to recall Phillips and waive Kevin Rooney on Thursday less than 24 hours after they squeaked out a 5–3 win against the Minnesota Wild on home ice.
It was an odd game from start to finish. The Flames gave up two quick goals early in the first period but responded with three in a row to start the second. Then, just 12 seconds after the Wild tied the game late in the third, Rasmus Andersson restored the Flames’ lead for good.
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The common denominator through all of this? The Flames’ fourth line barely saw the ice. Milan Lucic, Trevor Lewis, and Brett Ritchie were caught standing still as the Wild scored to go up 2–0 early in the game and they seldom returned to the playing surface afterward.
Lucic finished the evening with just 5:16 of playing time, his lowest single-game total in more than a decade. And with Rooney clearly not favoured by the coaching staff, the Flames needed to shake up their forward depth. Wednesday night’s events helped make that clear and likely set the wheels in motion for today’s roster moves.
The Flames originally selected Phillips in the sixth round (No. 166 overall) of the 2016 NHL Draft. He’s been recalled by the Flames a couple times in the past but only has one NHL game on his resume, having logged 14:19 in Calgary’s 2020–21 season finale against the Vancouver Canucks.
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Phillips being recalled is a positive sign for all the young players on the farm looking to take the next step. He’s set the standard for the rest — namely, Jakob Pelletier and Connor Zary — to work toward. It also serves as a reminder to the NHL incumbents that there are always guys knocking on the door (particularly on a 13–6–1 AHL club).
We don’t know whether Phillips will dress for the Flames against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday. If he does, it still remains to be seen whether he’ll dislodge anyone in the top nine or simply slot in on the fourth line. Either way, he’ll be earning more than five times his AHL wage for every day he spends on the NHL roster.
But — and this is key — Flames are about to find out more about what they have in Phillips. He might follow in the footsteps of former AHL linemate Adam Ruzicka and become a game-breaker for this team. It’s also possible that he fizzles out completely at the NHL level. The reality is likely somewhere inbetween.
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The Flames are all-in on being a contender this season. They’ve reportedly been doing their due diligence on potential trade targets, although they likely won’t come cheap — both in terms of acquisition cost and cap hit.
Promoting from within was the right first step for the Flames to take. Phillips earned an NHL look more than anyone else on the Wranglers (and, arguably, in the entire AHL). Now, it’s up to him to make the most of it.