For a vast majority of the 2021-22 season, the Calgary Flames were somewhat of an NHL anomaly. For whatever reason, the team successfully avoided significant injuries to key players. At the end of last week, they only had 62 man-games lost due to injuries and health protocols. Compare that to the Montreal Canadiens’ 556 man-games lost, and the Flames’ good fortune seems almost unbelievable.
However, it appears that good luck has finally run out. The Flames suddenly find themselves without the services of Sean Monahan (hip surgery), Oliver Kylington (upper body), Brett Ritchie (lower body) and Calle Jarnkrok, who has been battling an undisclosed illness. While general manager Brad Treliving has filled out his roster by calling up Connor Mackey, Adam Ruzicka and Juuso Valimaki from the Stockton Heat, there’s another player I’m really hoping to see in a Calgary jersey before the regular season ends: Matthew Phillips.
For those of you who have been reading my stuff for the past two years, you know that I’m a huge fan of this little firecracker. Last week, the 23-year-old winger became the all-time single-season scoring leader for the Heat when he notched his 58th point of the 2021-22 campaign. Now in his fourth full season in Stockton, Phillips has nothing left to prove at the American Hockey League (AHL) level. In early February, Treliving himself told Sportsnet 960 that he expects to see Phillips or Jakob Pelletier get promoted to the big club before season’s end.
“You bring guys up when you have a need, whether it’s an injury or a positional need, or when you believe they’ve earned an opportunity, Treliving said. “And in both cases, in my mind, they’ve earned an opportunity … I would hope here at some point, we’re going to see those guys.”
I think it’s high time the Flames GM makes that happen.
Flames Have Ample Cap Space to Make More Call-ups
Before Monahan’s season-ending injury, the Flames were super-tight to the cap, making any roster moves very difficult. Now that the centerman is on long term injured reserve (LTIR), Calgary can spend his $6.375 million cap hit on calls-ups. Even after the recalls of Mackey, Valimaki and Ruzicka, the team still has roughly $3.4 million in salary space remaining, and with the 23-man roster limit no longer applicable, there’s absolutely no reason to keep Phillips in the AHL.
But wait, there’s more! Because both Ruzicka and Valimaki were emergency loan recalls, the Flames still have three regular recalls remaining, so the only justification I can think of to keep Phillips in Stockton would be to bolster the team’s Calder Cup playoff chances. However, I would bet the farm that the 5-foot-7 winger would gladly forgo any and all minor league postseason success to fulfill his dream of becoming an NHL regular.
Flames’ Secondary Scoring Has Dried up
In Stockton’s last four seasons, no player has scored more goals for the Heat than Phillips. The guy is an elite AHL sniper, and if you look at how the Flames’ secondary scoring has dried up in recent weeks, maybe the big club could use another offensive weapon in its arsenal. In the last calendar month, Andrew Mangiapane has exactly one goal. Ditto for Blake Coleman and Milan Lucic. Even Tyler Toffoli (who was red hot to start his tenure in Calgary) has only four goals since March 5. What’s the harm in having another middle-six option on the roster who can put the puck in the net?
For those who think Phillips is simply too small, or can’t play “Sutter-style” hockey, just listen to how his head coach in Stockton describes his game: “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 in mid-January.
“He’s so competitive on loose pucks even though his stature isn’t there,” Love said. “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 “Darryl Sutter” hockey?
It Wouldn’t Be the First Time the Flames Added an Undersized Forward for a Cup Run
Let’s not forget that this organization took a big chance on 5-foot-6 Theo Fleury a little over 33 years go. Calgary called up Fleury from the International Hockey League’s Salt Lake Golden Eagles on Jan. 1, 1989 and the crafty rookie immediately made an impact at the NHL level, recording 34 points in his first 36 games. He also proved that he could produce in the playoffs, adding 11 more points in the postseason to help the Flames win their first and only Stanley Cup.
While I know it’s not fair to compare the Stockton Heat’s MVP (who has just one NHL game on his resume) to one of the Flames’ all-time greats, it does prove that good things can happen when a team takes a risk on a player who doesn’t necessarily fit the classic NHL mold. Phillips’ one-game call-up with Calgary at the end of the 2020-21 season proved he didn’t look out of place on hockey’s biggest stage. I think he’s ready for an extended audition.
Because of his 150-pound frame, the shifty skater has had to work extra hard at every level to prove his naysayers wrong. He excelled in his junior career, in his four seasons the AHL, and now he needs the Flames to give him an opportunity at the NHL level. If Phillips gets a shot to play for the big club during the stretch drive, I can guarantee he will be an asset to a potentially lengthy Stanley Cup run.
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.