If you hang around a Calgary bar or the Saddledome stands or go through some corner of Flames Twitter, you will inevitably hear a cry for Matthew Phillips to be given a chance in the NHL.
Time for this guy to move to the big team. No ifs or buts!
— Nige Grant (@red5nige) November 20, 2022
Those calls aren’t necessarily without merit. The Calgary native has turned himself into a reliable scorer for the Flames’ AHL affiliate. He scored 31 goals with the Stockton Heat last season and is currently tied for the league lead in goals (11) through 15 games this year with the Calgary Wranglers.
In an ideal world, Phillips probably gets an opportunity to prove his mettle in the NHL. He’s 24 and even using the term “prospect” is starting to become a bit of a stretch. But with the Flames, a roster with size, experience and mounting playoff expectations, there doesn’t appear to be room for him at the moment. The Flames have Andrew Mangiapane, Dillon Dube and Blake Coleman as their smallest players, at around 5-foot-10 or 5-foot-11; Phillips is 5-foot-8. And even then, the Flames have younger prospects in Jakob Pelletier and Connor Zary who have also shown promise.
It won’t keep him from trying, however. If he keeps producing in the AHL, it won’t stop fans from pleading their case.
This week, The Athletic caught up with Phillips to discuss his season so far and his chances at trying to crack the Flames roster.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What adjustments ahead of the season did you feel you needed to make to take your game to the next level?
I worked on my shot a lot in the summer, I think that’s something that I can always improve at. I definitely don’t have a hard shot. So, working on being a little more dangerous from further out on the ice. I think that just makes me more of a threat. But overall, I think, just trying to do the same things. I think I had a lot to build off last season and I kind of know how I need to play to have an impact.
Was there anything you took from training camp, whether from Darryl Sutter or (Wranglers head coach) Mitch Love, that you’re hoping to apply to your game?
The feedback I got from camp, more or less, is just kind of keep doing what you’re doing. I think they were pretty happy with what I showed in camp. I mean, we get constant feedback here. The coaching staff is kind of relentless in that aspect. We’re always working on things and finding stuff to get better at. So, definitely try not to get complacent and continue to get better.
Can you explain what your offseason training is like? Where are you at? What are you doing?
I’ve spent my summers here in Calgary. Since I got drafted, I’ve been training with Ryan Van Asten and the Flames’ strength staff. This was now, I think, my sixth or seventh summer doing it. They take great care of us, the training is top class and I think I had a really good summer. It was short, but I think that kind of allowed me to just jump right back into it. It wasn’t a really big time of rust or too much time away from the game or anything like that. So, it was a good summer and Ryan Van Asten has been great for me and in my offseason.
I’m not sure how much you pay attention to it. But at least since I’ve been here, there’s been a lot of other fans wondering when Matthew Phillips is going to get a shot with the Calgary Flames. Do you notice that at all?
It’s a Canadian market. It’s a hockey city. I’m now in my fifth year here, so I think people know what my game might be all about. I try not to think about that too much. There’s a lot that can change in the AHL and guys can go up and down. It’s cliche, but you do need to focus on the present day and what you’re doing and how you can get better and just kind of go from there.
You’ve had the success that you’ve had (at the AHL level) but you’ve only played one NHL game. How does it feel knowing you’ve only had one real opportunity so far?
I mean, at the time (that) was super exciting. And that was something that I worked really hard for. That will always be a special day for me. But I think everyone’s path is different. There’s certain situations where guys get called up and sometimes your job is to just keep doing what you’re doing in the AHL and see where that takes you. I know last year, I just kind of kept that momentum going (and) had a strong season. Our team had a really good year and guys are getting opportunities, but it’s something that you can’t really get too worked up about. I think you have to earn that spot and you can’t control whether you get a call or not. You kind of just have to do what you’re doing. I know that sounds super cliche and repetitive but it’s true.
It seems as if at least you’re trying not to think too much about that. I mean, if I was in your shoes and was just looking at social media and thinking, “oh god, these people are saying they want me to play but I’m not getting that opportunity.” I know that would make me feel a way.
Social media can be a bit of a dangerous thing. But you don’t want to get too caught up in that. I mean, everyone’s obviously entitled to their opinion. But, yeah, I want to play in the NHL just like anybody else. I’m doing my best to try to get there and show what I can do at this level to hopefully get a chance to the next level. But at the end of the day, you just need to focus on where you’re at.
Do you feel encouraged at the fact that we’re starting to get away from the days where you absolutely have to be this massive player, and you’re seeing shorter guys like Brayden Point making names for themselves?
Yeah, definitely. I think pro hockey would have been a lot harder for me 20 years ago. But yeah, it’s encouraging. I mean, there’s plenty of small guys in the NHL that are top players on their team and put up numbers and teams rely on them. So, it’s definitely a good thing for me being at my stature, but I kind of only know how to play one way. That’s what I’m focusing on.
(Top photo: Bob Frid / USA Today)