The Calgary Flames can only hope that Matthew Phillips doesn’t wind up being the one that got away.
Before signing with the Washington Capitals in free agency this summer, the Calgary native was in the Flames system for seven years. He put up massive numbers for their AHL affiliates, including the Wranglers last season.
It wasn’t enough, though, to earn him a shot playing regular NHL hockey. There are many who put the responsibility for that squarely at the feet of former head coach Darryl Sutter.
And so, Phillips went to Washington, explaining to Postmedia’s Wes Gilbertson this summer that the opportunity to earn NHL minutes was a major factor in his decision.
“I just think Washington, they checked a lot of boxes and they seemed to like my game and what I can bring,” Phillips said in July. “That’s what you’re looking for when you hit free agency, is a team that wants you and you want to go there.”
There were a lot of fans in Calgary who wanted to see Phillips in a Flames uniform.
The 25-year-old’s size was always the knock against him. At 5-foot-8 and weighing in at 160 lbs., there’s no doubt he is small by NHL standards.
The counterargument is that he’s been undersized at every level he’s played at and has still always managed to produce.
After starring in the Calgary minor hockey league system, he would go on to score 50 goals for the Victoria Royals in 2016-17. He got 48 more the next year.
He was drafted in the sixth round, 166th overall, in 2016 by the Flames and continued to produce when he got to the pros. Last year in the AHL he scored 36 goals and added 40 assists in 66 games for the Wranglers while scoring a record-tying 15 game-winners.
There were moments last year when Flames fans were practically knocking down the doors of the Saddledome and begging for Phillips to be given a chance with the NHL club, but Sutter only put him in the lineup for two games — and he got less than 10 minutes of ice time in both.
It appears that will be different in Washington.
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During pre-season, Phillips played in five of the Capitals’ six games. He scored an overtime winner. He found himself interacting with huge NHL stars, in Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
And, finally, he found his way onto the Capitals’ opening night roster, where he got 11:21 of playing time against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
On Monday, he was expected to be in the lineup for the Capitals as they took on the Flames.
His former teammates are thrilled to see him getting an opportunity.
“He’s a small guy, that’s always been the knock on him, but he’s probably one of the more skilled guys I’ve seen in my career,” said Flames winger Walker Duehr, who trains with Phillips in the summer and was a teammate of his in the AHL for parts of two seasons. “I think he’s got the tools to do it. If it’s work ethic, he works at it every single day, so I’m really happy for him.”
If Phillips finds his role with the Capitals and manages to thrive, it will surely be bittersweet for Flames fans.
He never once complained publicly about not being given a fair shot with the Flames, and even described the controversy that came along with Sutter not playing him as being “blown out of proportion” in an interview with Sportsnet’s Eric Francis in Washington this weekend.
Phillips handled the perceived snub with class and it’s impossible to resent him for exploring his options in free agency and choosing a different organization where he felt he might have a straightforward path to NHL playing time.
But ever since he took over as general manager in the spring, Craig Conroy has talked about wanting to make sure the Flames are a team where young players know there are opportunities available to them.
With Huska as head coach and Conroy as GM, it’s entirely possible that Phillips or players with similar skill sets and upside are going to find more NHL playing time open up for them with the Flames going forward.
That didn’t happen for Phillips, though. And you can’t help but wonder if that’s something everyone in Calgary will look back on with regret.