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AHL: BELL – Is Matthew Phillips NHL Ready?

VANCOUVER, BC - SEPTEMBER 25: Calgary Flames center Matthew Phillips (41) skates up ice during their preseason NHL game against the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena on September 25, 2022 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire)

It’s been a long road for Matthew Phillips, but it’s been leading to one goal: the NHL.

Drafted 166th overall back in 2016 by the Calgary Flames, the forward was coming off a standout rookie season with the WHL’s Victoria Royals, leading all first-year players in goals (37) and points (76) en route to the Jim Piggott Trophy as WHL Rookie of the Year. He then followed that up with two dominant seasons, putting up 90 and 112 points, the latter as captain of the team.

Entering the 2018-19 season, Phillips made the jump to the AHL with expectations sky-high. Since then, he’s done what he’s supposed to do - put up points. His point-per-games have been, in order, 0.58, 0.87, 0.68, 0.97. He played in the AHL All-Star Game in 2019-20 and was a focal point on the team’s playoff run in 2021-22. This season, he’s recorded 1.50 points per game, leading to fans calling for his promotion to the NHL.

This season looks like Phillips’ year to make the jump. He had a strong pre-season, he’s currently leading the AHL in goals (15) and points (30) and was just named AHL Player of the Month for November. His size is an obvious worry, at just 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds, but he’s proved that doesn’t need to be a hindrance to his game at the AHL level. But what about at the NHL level?

The Calgary, Alberta native has earned a chance to at least audition at the next level. He just needs to be given that chance.


As a smaller player, skating needs to be a strong suit for Phillips. While he may not have big, long strides that generate a great deal of power, he’s found a way to utilize his feet as an asset. His agile footwork regularly leads to him creating separation and then using crossovers to build speed at a very quick rate. There is a downfall in this, in that what might take Phillips 10 strides might take a strong-skating NHL defender five or six strides. This is a great deal more exertion of energy for him versus other players. This doesn’t often prove itself to be an issue at the AHL level, but it’s something that could hamper Phillips’ ability at the next level.

Phillips’ footwork has a great deal to like though. His low, athletic stance allows for sharp turns without losing speed, he regularly changes speed to both create deception in the offensive zone and create separation from defenders. One area that could use improvement for him to truly succeed at the next level - especially for his size - is incorporating more crossovers into his game. He does this occasionally, but I’d like to see it as a regular occurrence.

Phillips is number 11 in white in this video and all others unless specified. This clip is an excellent example of Phillips’ foot skill. To start, while assisting his defenders, he pivots to match the opponent’s speed and then again to attack the puck. He does well here to get his stick in the way and force the attacker to dump the puck in. Despite the Canucks’ coming up with it, at the 11-second mark, you can see Phillips’ take a quick look over his right shoulder. He already knows where everyone is on the ice. When the turnover comes his way, he jumps into crossovers to build speed while picking up the puck and is off to the races. He does tend to hop into his crossovers rather than fluidly fall into the next step, which I’d like to see improve.

In his straight-line skating, his shoulder rotation, his extensions, and his form, all look great. However, against an NHL defender, I’m not sure Phillips makes this transition so cleanly. Once the defender reaches Phillips at the 17-second mark, watch how Phillips extends the puck out and positions himself between the puck and the defender. He then leans into the defender, takes a quick look at the goalie, and fires home a quick snap. How he reads and handles this entire situation is a really great look into Phillips’ game. He knows exactly how much time and space he has and utilizes it well.

This clip goes into Phillips’ agility a little more and his ability to move around so fluidly. His quick transitions into the 10-2 skating position to rotate around and then flip back are seamless and he uses this often to separate from attackers. He also uses his quick hands to assist with this, showing off his ability to stack skills. Of course, the pass through traffic to Connor Zary for the goal is also a testament to Philliips’ vision, awareness, and accurate passing.

After watching endless tape on Phillips, this was one of few where he utilized crossovers to this extent. Adding this into his arsenal a little more would go a long way to add another level of deception to his game. You can see how hard this is to read, as he keeps shifting from curving in to curving out. He doesn’t get around the defender, but he gains the zone.

We’ll get to Phillips’ smarts and compete later, but this clip also shows this off. Once he hits the boards and is challenged by two players, the winger maintains possession, notices his support, and kicks the puck to his teammate to keep the attack going.

Grade: 55


Putting up goals has never been an issue for Phillips, putting up 136 goals in 215 WHL games, and now 82 in 219 AHL games (and counting). He has a quick release and great accuracy. When he shoots, you can see his weight pushing down into his stick to add force and velocity. His patience with the puck also stands out, waiting for the opportune time and position on the ice.

Shot Chart from InStat Hockey

The shot chart of Phillips’ season shows that he doesn’t have any issues getting down low to the net. He’s often a net-front presence that tips pucks or bangs in rebounds, as well as using his speed to get past defenders to get in all alone. As the chart shows, most of his goals come from down low here. There is a rather large cluster of shots on the right sideboard and a few stragglers from the point (when he’s on the power play) that I’d like to see creep in a little more, but overall, the winger does well looking for high-danger shooting positions.

Taking a look at Phillips’ form in his shot, he’s doing a lot of things right. He keeps his chest and shoulders over his toes, he releases his right knee to add weight down into his stick, and he steps forward with his left foot. This is a great transfer of weight that leads to a hard, quick shot.

This is a hard angle to see here, but will be shown in the next clip, the one area for improvement here for Phillips is his top hand. I’d like to see him hold it a little further away from himself to turn his lower hand into more of a fulcrum in his shot. Making that adjustment will add even more power to his shot.

This clip shows Phillips taking advantage of the space given to him, coming in from the boards to gain a better position before firing it. He also fires it while still moving toward the middle of the ice, making it difficult for the goalie to read.

This is a very typical look at where Phillips shoots on net. More often than not, his shots are low, along the ice. And it works for him. But this also shows off his patience. With defenders diving in front of the goalie and one coming out to attack him, he waits them out, while stickhandling to make himself unpredictable, to the point that the netminder thinks he’s going to pass, cheating and pulling back his right leg to slide. Phillips’ sees the opportunity and pots the goal.

While this is a great clip of Phillips in action, this is a rare clip at the same time. Very rarely does he shoot off of his right leg, something that would tremendously improve his shooting ability. His usual go-to is a regular wrist shot, as shown in the past three videos, or an occasional backhander. The snapshot is in his toolbox but it’s often left there and not used, especially off his right leg.

Phillips’ pass reception at the beginning of this video does need to be mentioned here, as he uses backwards crossovers and the 10-2 footwork to grab the pass from around the stretched-out defender and quickly gets a free look at the netminder.

Grade: 55


What this section boils down to is: can you find and/or create space for yourself and your teammates? The short answer for Phillips: Yes. But as we’ve seen, I don’t do short answers very well.

Phillips’ puckhandling can be a thing of beauty, keeping the puck glued to his stick at times while he navigates traffic. This can also be a curse though, especially as he takes his game to the next level and sees the - as Darryl Sutter puts it - “big difference” between the AHL and NHL. His ability to make plays, find teammates through traffic, and create space for teammates through passes does stand out as well. This will be shown in the next two sections.

This clip shows off so much of the skill that Phillips has available to him. From the soft catch of the pass that immediately leads to him attacking the middle of the ice, this is peak Phillips. With the first defender attacking, he makes a quick pull to his left to move around, followed by another quick pull right after to give himself a one-on-one look at the netminder. After the backhand, he’s quick on his own rebound as well.

While the puck starts heading the other way, Phillips is caught back but it pays off as he gets yet another chance thanks to a pass from Jakob Pelletier. Phillips grabs the pass and immediately utilizes his crossovers to build speed. With the defender right on him, he pulls the puck away while using his other arm to hold the defender off and turns it into an excellent scoring chance.

Call this skills or smarts, but Phillips’ read of this initial pass from the netminder leads to his interception, a scoring chance (you may notice that he creates a very high number of these), and ongoing pressure in the offensive zone.

What really stands out to me in this video is at the nine-second mark when he chases the puck bouncing off the boards behind the net. With defender Brogan Rafferty right on him, Phillips quickly lifts his stick while simultaneously boxing him out, gaining position over the 6-foot defender. He sees his teammate through the crease and tries to slide the puck across to him - all within two seconds.

While Phillips’ skill is impressive, it can get him into trouble. In this clip from the NHL pre-season, the winger - number 41 here - does well to be a support option here with his teammate held up on the boards. Getting the puck, he’s immediately surrounded by three defenders closing in. In this moment, Phillips’ relies on his skill too much, causing blinders to go up. He tries to stickhandle his way out to maintain possession but is stripped and the puck turns the other way.

This is an example of what works for him in the AHL that won’t in the NHL. Phillips does have options here to move the puck quickly, either off the boards to the defender, there’s a moment where a seam opens to the other defender, or just dumping it down. With the pressure on, he doesn’t see those options.

Grade: 55


Despite the last clip, Phillips intelligence is arguably his strongest asset. Starting with his awareness, his ability to know where to be, and more importantly, his timing in breaking free and getting to those spots are what makes him truly dangerous in the offensive zone and in transition. This positional awareness is what stands out most in his smarts. It shows up in his playmaking as well, leading teammates into space and knowing what type of pass will get them there.

As soon as his defender has the puck here, you can see Phillips roll away from his faceoff challenger into open space, ready to attack. He collects the puck without pausing his stride and quickly looks up to see his teammate streaking down the middle. A slip pass through the defender leads his teammate to a high-danger area.

Phillips then finds open space in front of the net, ready if a pass comes out his way. When he’s challenged, you can see him recognize the defender, so he knows he’s about to break free. As soon as the defender pivots to try and remain between the puck and Phillips, the winger slips behind and around the defender and bats in a goal. While it is bad defending, Phillips exploiting that is what stands out.

Phillips often finds himself on the point to start the power play, and in this play, you can see why. Getting the puck right off the faceoff, you can see him scanning the ice and noting the four defenders in position. Phillips slowly carries the puck down the boards and by the 11-second mark, he’s pulled two defenders on him and left two of his teammates open, one of which he passes to.

Getting the puck back, Phillips already sees the gap in defending and his streaking teammate down the opposite wall. He slides it through and now with a pass, has drawn off the defenders to the opposite side. With valuable, dangerous ice open, Phillips slides in and one-times a power-play goal.

On the power play, the goal is to pull defenders out of position. Phillips does that with his possession and patience as well as his passing. This is a great look into his awareness and intelligence in the offensive zone.

We can’t talk about smarts without mention of shortcomings though. No player is perfect, but this is a very bad look from Phillips for both his route choice and the pass. While plays like this aren’t a regular occurrence from him, it’s a mistake that cannot happen. Luckily, goaltender Dustin Wolf bails his teammate out, but this could have easily led to a goal against. Rare or not, plays like this will keep Phillips from getting his overdue call-up.

Grade: 60


As a smaller player, Phillips knows that he can’t take his foot off the gas, and he doesn’t. He’s relentless on the forecheck, using his body positioning and stick to steal pucks and fight for possession. It does seem that in more board battles, Phillips is able to maneuver the puck away from defenders and get it to safety for the most part. His small-area game is strong. While he’s strong on his feet, there isn’t much of a physical edge to his game. In a stick battle, he’s likely to win, but when it’s a battle of strength, Phillips struggles. I don’t believe that this will/should keep him out of the NHL, but old-school hockey minds will think differently.

First and foremost, hats off to the between-the-legs attempt. For most of this shift, Phillips is up against Abbotsford Canucks’ captain Chase Wouters, who has four inches and 30 pounds on Phillips. But he does battle well here, starting with a net-front fight for position where he stays in front of Wouters. With the puck rolling to the corner, he’s the first on it and flips it over to his teammate before driving back to the net for more. Jeremie Poirier’s shot actually goes off of Phillips here for a goal.

After taking the hit after the between-the-legs shot, Phillips shows off his fearlessness, continuously driving the net and fighting for position. While he may lack some strength, he certainly doesn’t lack tenacity.

Phillips will always try to stickhandle his way out of tough situations and if you attack the puck, you’re likely to lose. As San Jose Barracuda forward C.J. Suess shows here, the key to stripping Phillips of the puck is taking the body. Phillips tries to spin away here, but Suess isn’t having it, pinning Phillips to the boards and losing the puck. He isn’t likely to win many physical battles moving forward, but the winger will need to learn when to move the puck before getting caught in situations like this.

This final clip is an excellent summation of Phillip’s game. On the forecheck, Phillips knows one way: attack. You can see that off the start here, attacking the puck carrier in the corner, forcing a quick pass from the defender. The next stand-out moment here is Phillips’ relentless drive to the net as he tries to jump on the rebound without worrying about the physical confrontation.

As soon as he’s back on his feet, he’s back on the puck and immediately strips the defender behind the net, bringing it out front and driving it through the goalie and into the back of the net. He’s relentless on this play, constantly getting involved and trying to create scoring chances. This seems like a player that the Flames could use.

Grade: 50

OFP: 55

A note on the 20-80 scale used above. We look at five attributes (skating, shooting, puck skills, hockey IQ, and physicality) for skaters and six for goalies (athleticism/quickness, compete/temperament, vision/play reading, technique/style, rebound control, and puck handling). Each individual attribute is graded along the 20-80 scale, which includes half-grades. The idea is that a projection of 50 in a given attribute meant that our observer believed that the player could get to roughly NHL average at that attribute at maturity.