Becoming a full-time NHLer as a sixth-round draft pick could be the textbook definition of an uphill battle, but for a player only listed at only 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds? Well, that prospect becomes even more unlikely. Matthew Phillips‘ small stature has been the major knock against the Calgary Flames prospect his entire hockey career, but after three seasons playing for the Flames’ farm club, and finally making his NHL debut at the tail end of the 2020-21 season, the home town kid is really hoping to stick around with the big club.
Assigning Phillips to the Stockton Heat Will Expose Him to Waivers
While Phillips survived this week’s first round of cuts that shrunk the training camp roster to 41, the odds of the 23-year-old sniper cracking the main squad when they drop the puck on the regular season are slim to none. With the boatload of offseason depth signings, there simply isn’t room on the roster. Flames general manager (GM) Brad Treliving didn’t bring in players like Brad Richardson, Trevor Lewis and Brett Richie to see them play in the American Hockey League (AHL). He brought them in to play “Sutter-style” hockey.
Nobody has scored more goals for the Stockton Heat than Phillips these past three seasons, so he’s proven that he can excel in the AHL. The little guy has earned his shot playing with the big boys. However, while the crafty winger can certainly bring superior offensive skill and great vision to the table, he certainly doesn’t bring the heavy, defence-first style of hockey coach Darryl Sutter hopes to implement this year.
If the Flames are going to win one-goal games this year, they will likely count on their top two lines for scoring, and the bottom six to play some hard-nosed, shutdown hockey. The fleet-footed forward would likely need a top-six role to truly thrive on this team, so barring a series of injuries at training camp, Phillips will likely be assigned to Stockton within the week.
Phillips’ Skill Set Could be Very Attractive to NHL Teams Looking for Offence
I truly think the Flames are simply crossing their fingers, closing their eyes and hoping against hope that some other NHL squad doesn’t pluck the shifty forward off the waiver wire when Phillips is ultimately sent down to the farm. The speedster just signed a one-year, $750,000 extension, but it’s a two-way contract, so that means he’ll have to clear waivers before he can suit up for the Heat this season. With 31 other clubs also going through training camps right now, don’t you think at least one of them is actively looking for some extra offensive skill in their organization, especially at a very low price/low risk?
Phillips’ tenure in the Flames organization has been overwhelmingly positive. After a strong rookie season with 38 points (25 of those coming at even strength), he followed it up with a red-hot start to his 2019-20 campaign, notching 30 points in just 28 games before an injury knocked him out of the lineup for almost two months. The sixth-round pick struggled when he finally returned to the ice and only got in 10 games before COVID-19 canceled the remainder of the season.
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The diminutive forward returned to top form for his third pro campaign, and led the Heat in scoring with 21 points in 30 games in 2020-21. I really don’t think he as anything left to prove at the AHL level, but unfortunately I don’t see the Flames’ coaching staff giving him an extended audition to show them he’s NHL ready.
The Flames Have a History of Giving Up on Small Players
Outside of former franchise player Theo Fleury and current leading scorer Johnny Gaudreau, the Flames’ track record of losing high-skilled, smaller players is well documented. The most famous example of all of them is Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis. The 5-foot-8 right winger played only 69 games in Calgary over two seasons before the organization let him walk before the 2000-01 campaign.
Former GM Craig Button regretted letting him get away, but his reasoning for not keeping St. Louis sounds oddly similar to Phillips’ current predicament: “There just wasn’t any place, didn’t seem to be that role, that opportunity, for him here at that time, in the top group of players.” (from ‘St. Louis remains the one that got away from Flames’, The Calgary Herald, 07/02/15)
But, St. Louis isn’t the only “smallish” player the Flames let go who found success in other organizations. Marc Savard spent three full seasons in Cowtown before finding greener pastures in Atlanta and Boston, but there’s another diminutive forward who more closely mirrors Phillips’ situation, and that’s 5-foot-9 Paul Byron. As the Flames 2015-16 training camp was wrapping up, Treliving tried to squeak the then 26-year-old through waivers because the coaching staff simply couldn’t find the right role for him. Bryon was immediately picked up by the Montreal Canadiens and has enjoyed a successful six-year stint playing for the Habs.
Sutter has made it clear the veteran depth forwards signed in the offseason will have to earn their spots on the roster, but the fact that he’s so familiar with several of them from his Los Angeles Kings coaching days means the prospects have a very tall order to earn his trust and make the NHL roster. I’ll admit, it’s probably an oversimplification to accuse the Flames of consistently valuing size and truculence over speed and skill for the past two decades. But, with the direction Sutter has been taking this team over the last two seasons, I certainly won’t be surprised if Calgary loses Phillips when he eventually gets assigned to Stockton and is placed on waivers.
I also won’t be surprised if the 5-foot-7 dynamo finds great success elsewhere, and adds to the organization’s unfortunate history of letting the little guys get away.
Greg Tysowski is a former broadcast journalist who chose the exciting life of a stay-at-home dad for over a decade. He’s now a published author, parenting blogger and aspiring sports writer covering the Calgary Flames for The Hockey Writers. Greg is also a regular contributor to the weekly roundtable discussion “Flames Faceoff”, now streaming on YouTube and all podcast outlets.