Flames Must Find a Middle Six Role for Matthew Phillips

I know I sound like a broken record, but it bears repeating: the Calgary Flames are being carried by an elite top line and desperately need secondary scoring. But don’t take my word for it; just ask head coach Darryl Sutter. After his team thumped the St. Louis Blues 7-1 earlier this week, Sutter praised his top guns but challenged the rest of his players to step up their offensive game. “I’ve said it several times over the course of the year, that (first) line pretty much carries our team for the most part,” Sutter told reporters on Monday. “We need to get some more out of everybody in order to be successful.”

Related: Calgary Flames’ Top 3 Players Through Midway Point of 2021-22

Unless general manager Brad Treliving makes some bold moves before the trade deadline, the Flames’ only option to bolster their offence is to look within the organization. For my money, their best bet is the Stockton Heat’s leading goal scorer, Matthew Phillips.

Matthew Phillips Calgary Flames
Matthew Phillips, Calgary Flames (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

This isn’t the first time I’ve sung Phillips’ praises, and it won’t be the last. The native Calgarian is in his fourth full season in the American Hockey League (AHL), and no player has scored more goals for the Flames’ farm club than the 5-foot-7 dynamo in that time. He is first on the team in goals and second in points behind rookie sensation Jakob Pelletier. With 32 points in 31 games, the Flames’ sixth-round draft pick is ready to make the move to the big league.

Sutter Reluctant to Call Up Prospects

We know the Flames’ head coach leans heavily on trusted veterans and doesn’t have an issue with letting prospects season in the minors. Just a couple of weeks ago, Sutter pushed back against the suggestion that he should be auditioning Stockton’s finest offensive talent to boost secondary scoring.

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“I think it’s really important as an organization that we do a thorough job of that,” Sutter told reporters on Jan. 11. “You don’t just call guys up and not let them have success. You want them to have one or two years of success, for sure. It’s a big jump. Well, there’s a big difference between the American Hockey League and the NHL, especially when you’re a first-year pro, and you’re undersized.”

Sutter was specifically talking about Pelletier, so while “first-year pro” doesn’t apply to Phillips, “undersized” most certainly does. The speedy winger’s small stature has always been the big knock against him, but if you ask his head coach in Stockton, Phillips doesn’t shy away from the rough stuff.

“This guy — he’s 150 pounds. I couldn’t even tell you how tall he is. I mean, he goes into the hard areas of the rink,” Mitch Love told Sportsnet 960. “He’s so competitive on loose pucks even though his stature isn’t there. It’s hard to sit on that bench or sit behind the players on the bench and watch what he does and not follow suit because he plays the game so hard. His skill set, his creativity, his ability to make plays and people around him better, just because he’s so smart and in tune with the game each and every night.”

Is it just me, or does that sound like textbook “Sutter-style” hockey?

4th Line Role Would Be Wasted on Phillips

Sutter thinks the Flames’ top prospects should have two or three seasons of success in the minors before getting their shot with the big club, but Phillips has surpassed that and then some. Now a fourth-year pro, there’s nothing more the hometown boy can prove with the Heat. He’s not only putting points on the board consistently, but he’s also becoming defensively responsible. But, here’s the issue: there’s no way he can become a grinder on a fourth-line of pluggers.

While he brings superior offensive skills and great vision to the table, Phillips doesn’t bring the heavy, truculent style that Sutter needs on a checking unit. He won’t find success lining up next to Trevor Lewis, Brad Richardson or Brett Ritchie, so where can the Flames slot him into the lineup? Here’s an idea: with Sean Monahan’s recent resurgence, why not give the former sniper another “Gaudreau-style” engine to play with? How does a Dube-Monahan-Phillips third line grab you? It’s worth a shot.

Phillips Needs an Extended Audition

Far too often, AHL players get called up and play limited minutes in sheltered situations before being sent back to the farm after a handful of unproductive games. If the Flames want to see what they’ve got in Phillips, they need to give him at least 10 to 15 games in a middle-six role. His one-game call-up at the end of 2020-21 proved he didn’t look out of place on hockey’s biggest stage. Imagine what he could do with an extended stay in Cowtown.

Because of his 150-pound frame, the shifty skater has had to work extra hard at every level to prove his naysayers wrong. He has excelled in junior, in the AHL and now all he needs is the right opportunity in the NHL. If the Flames give Phillips a legitimate shot, I can guarantee he will make the most of it.

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