The 2015-16 NHL season has yet to reach its conclusion, yet the coming 2016 NHL Draft is already gaining monumental attention. Taking place on the 24th and 25th of June, 2016, scouting, reporting and analysis of hundreds of young, draft eligible players is already well under-way, with each team hoping to address both current and future needs within their respective organizations.
We all know well that Auston Matthews is heavily favored to be selected first overall, while Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi, Matthew Tkachuk and Jakob Chychrun are expected to round out the top five selections.
However, where the annual draft is truly won lies in the later rounds of the draft. Sure, you can select a stud with a top ten draft choice, however, it is how successfully you draft in later rounds which can determine the success of a given franchise in the long-term. If you are unable to draft future NHL players in later rounds, whether it be a first line player of fourth, the depth necessary to ice a successful team will be severely threatened.
Case in point: the Edmonton Oilers.
With that being said, there is one particular player, currently skating with the Western Hockey League’s Victoria Royals, who has thus far flown under the radar in his first year of eligibility. Projected to be a late round selection, drafting this highly skilled player will produce a quality NHL player for the team willing to take a chance in selecting him.
Height Doesn’t Measure Heart
You may have heard Toronto Blue Jays Pitcher Marcus Stroman use this slogan this past Major League Baseball season, and it could not ring truer for Matthew Phillips, who despite his small size, listed at five foot seven, 170 pounds, and elsewhere at five foot six, 137 pounds, continues to defy the odds in his rookie season in the WHL.
At the ripe age of 17, Phillips will be 18 years old come the draft, meaning he is still quite young and has plenty of time to continue to grow.
To date, Phillips has not let his size, or lack thereof, interfere with his success on the ice, as he has become one of the most persistent and productive players not only on Victoria, but within the WHL as a whole. Through 58 games this season, Phillips had scored an impressive 31 goals and 31 assists, good for 62 points as a rookie. His totals, which rank second on the Royals behind only Alex Forsberg, slot Phillips in a tie for 17th overall in League scoring, while he leads the WHL in scoring by all rookie skaters.
Perhaps what is most impressive about Phillips’ game is his willingness to play a style of game out of his weight class. Never afraid to go into a corner for a puck, even against much larger opposition, Phillips’ play at times can best be described as fearless. Not only will he initiate contact with imposing defenders, but in the majority of cases, will battle for and win any puck battle which he finds himself within.
Check out Phillips, number 11 in dark blue, in game action earlier this season, where he recorded a hat trick.
Clearly evident in the above video, which is an encapsulation of his play this season, is Phillips’ incredible hockey IQ and sense. He is seemingly always aware of the location of his teammates on the ice, and makes accurate touch passes in order to move the puck in the offensive zone. Further, once he has dished the puck, Phillips knows to move in order to place himself in prime scoring areas, where his quick release and surprisingly fast shot tend to overwhelm opposing net-minders.
Not listed by either International Scouting Services, or Central Scouting in their list of the top 210 North American Skaters, Phillips will once again find himself as an underdog due to his size.
A longshot to be drafted in 2016, if not in later rounds of the Draft, Phillips’ size is the lone aspect of his game which has undoubtedly soured the perspective of numerous scouts who have witnessed his play this season. However, at such a young age, Phillips has plenty of time to not only grow in height, but to become physically stronger as a whole.
Further, as we have seen in recent years, the NHL and its franchises have slowly begun to prioritize players of smaller stature, who tend to retain much greater skill sets than those who check in at over 6 feet, 200 pounds. In Montreal, look no further than Brendan Gallagher; in Calgary, Johnny Gaudreau and Jiri Hudler; while in Chicago, there are two smaller players you could argue are pretty talented in Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin.
In fact, as of the 2015 NHL Draft, Mitch Marner weighed in at just 160 pounds, yet was the fifth overall selection of the Toronto Maple Leafs, characterizing their emphasis on smaller, talented players as the leaders of their current rebuild.
With that being said, there is clearly a market, if not an increasing one, for players of smaller stature who retain incredible skill sets at the NHL level. Martin St. Louis defied the odds for years despite being undrafted due to his size, yet was able to carve out a Hall of Fame caliber career.
Therefore, when it comes to Matthew Phillips, NHL teams must truly do their homework when considering whether or not to draft this budding young star. As we have seen, he is incredibly skilled, and despite his size has been able to produce at an incredible rate as a rookie in the WHL this season. Despite not being ranked highly, or at all, by some notable scouting services ahead of the Draft, expect Phillips to be an extremely sought after player by numerous NHL teams, whether it comes at the upcoming NHL Draft or not.