The “right day” has arrived.
The Calgary Flames are no longer in playoff contention. Perhaps the Flames missing the playoffs has been a foregone conclusion for weeks, if not months. Mathematically, it became official only two days ago.
Five of the Flames’ fifteen active forwards are set to become unrestricted free agents on July 28. Derek Ryan, Josh Leivo, Buddy Robinson, Brett Ritchie, and Joakim Nordstrom are all mere weeks away from hitting the open market.
Ritchie, turning 28 on Canada Day, is the youngest of that group. The Flames’ rapidly-aging core desperately needs a shot in the arm. With few bonafide blue-chippers on deck, the Flames’ most imminent reinforcements will likely come in the form of promising—if somewhat flawed—late-round picks.
It’s time for Matthew Phillips to lead that charge.
Most sixth round NHL draft picks never suit up at the top level. It’s even rarer for a 5’7″ hockey player to reach the NHL. Phillips, a 5’7″ 2016 sixth round pick who turned 23 on Apr. 6, has somehow made it to the cusp of the Flames’ roster.
As a 17-year-old Western Hockey League rookie with the Victoria Royals in the 2015–16 season, Phillips scored at a rate usually indicative of a future first-round pick. He scored 37 goals and 76 points in just 72 games, good enough to place fourth on a 50-16-6 Royals team and 19th in the entire WHL.
Phillips was one of just five WHL players to score 50 goals in the 2016–17 season. In his third and final year with Victoria, he placed fifth in the entire league with 112 points (48 goals, 64 assists) in 71 games.
The Flames rewarded Phillips by signing him to a three-year entry-level contract on New Years’ Eve during his final WHL season. After sliding for the remainder of the 2017–18 campaign, the deal kicked in for Phillips’ debut AHL go-round with the Stockton Heat in 2018–19.
Phillips scored a total of zero points in his first eight games of that season. After that, he was fantastic.
According to Pick224, Phillips ranked third on the 2018–19 Heat (behind AHL veterans Alan Quine and Tyler Graovac) with 25 even-strength primary points in 65 games. He finished the season with 13 goals and 38 points but depended far less on power play scoring than the likes of Buddy Robinson, Kerby Rychel, Spencer Foo, and Curtis Lazar. All of those players finished ahead of Phillips on the raw points leaderboard but failed to contribute as regularly during five-a-side play.
The following season, Phillips surged forward. He played an estimated 17:02 per game and racked up 33 points in 38 games, good to place him in a tie for fourth in team scoring. Even better: Phillips finished second on the team—behind only Luke Philp—with 22 even-strength primary points.
Phillips scored 15 goals on just 62 shots in the 2019–20 season, good for a ridiculously high 24.2% shooting rate. The Heat scored 33 goals at even strength with Phillips on the ice but allowed 34, putting his relative on-ice goals-for percentage at a middling -3.64%. Phillips had a good sophomore season but still had room to grow.
Here’s the bad news: Phillips was on the ice for 29 even-strength goals against in 2020–21, tied with Adam Ruzicka and Connor Mackey for the most among Heat skaters. The good news: Stockton scored 22 goals at even strength with Phillips deployed, the second-highest on-ice mark of any Heat player (behind only Mackey).
Presenting your #AHLHeat Goal of the Year…
Matthew Phillips -> Adam Ruzicka. Two guys who could be in the NHL very soon. pic.twitter.com/XprUh5xCWW
— Mike Gould (@miketgould) April 30, 2021
Phillips may not be a defensive force, but his offensive upside rivals that of any player in the American Hockey League. His shooting percentage decreased to 14.3% as he scored eight goals on 56 shots; despite this, he tied for the team lead with 21 points in 30 games and improved from averaging 1.63 shots-per-game to 1.87. Only Ruzicka and Philp shot more often.
Even considering his improved volume, shots be damned if you’re Matthew Phillips. He’s a pure playmaker and can execute passes most AHLers could only imagine making.
Phillips passes the puck with force, pin-point accuracy, and perfect elevation. He corrals the puck on his stick effortlessly and can move it laterally with dexterity almost unparalleled at the AHL level.
Just can’t get enough of watching Matthew Phillips distribute the puck. pic.twitter.com/uickpma6ft
— Mike Gould (@miketgould) March 19, 2021
He’s a creative offensive threat with superb instincts and easily enough raw talent to play NHL hockey. But, sometimes, pure skill doesn’t translate to long-term NHL success or even an initial opportunity.
Phillips has played three professional seasons in the Flames’ organization and has yet to play a single NHL regular season game. No Heat player has more goals than Phillips’ 36 during that span. Only Philp has more (27 to 23) since the beginning of the 2019–20 season.
The Flames’ four current bottom-six wingers currently stand 6’1″, 6’3″, 6’4″, and 6’6″. They weigh an average of 219.3 pounds. Phillips’ most recent measurement with Stockton put him at 155.
Darryl Sutter’s most successful Los Angeles Kings teams were staffed by bottom-six behemoths, with nary a sub-5’11” body in sight. Dwight King: 6’4″. Jarret Stoll and Trevor Lewis: 6’1″. Jordan Nolan: 6’3″. Kyle Clifford: 6’2″. Even Mike Richards, who found himself relegated to a checking role by the Kings’ 2014 championship, stood 5’11” but weighed 199 pounds.
Johnny Gaudreau has demonstrated how a short, slender sharpshooter can thrive in a Sutter system. The 27-year-old winger has six goals and 15 points in his last 12 games and sits one point back of Elias Lindholm for the team scoring lead.
Gaudreau was an established star before Sutter’s arrival. Phillips is completely untested at the NHL level. Suffice to say, Gaudreau’s rope might be just a tad longer.
The Flames now have nothing to lose. Phillips has done all he can to earn a look in Calgary. Yes, he can be selected by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft this summer. Seattle almost certainly knows all about what Phillips can do and has scouted the AHL extensively as part of its pre-draft preparation. Their perception of Phillips is unlikely to change dramatically based on a few additional NHL games in garbage time.
He’s waited long enough. It’s time to introduce Phillips to the show.