Weekend notebook: Phillips hopes to feed the Flames

Photo: Jonathan Kozub

📝 by Patrick Williams

Be it the newspapers, talk shows, online forums or social media, AHL leading scorer Matthew Phillips has been a much-discussed subject this fall in Calgary.

When would Phillips join the Calgary Flames?

As the Calgary Wranglers forward continued to rip through the American Hockey League — piling up 30 points in 20 games, tying for first in the league with 15 goals — those questions became louder and louder.

Finally on Thursday morning, the Flames put in the call for the 24-year-old Phillips to join the NHL team ahead of their games tonight in Columbus and Saturday in Toronto. A spot in the lineup this weekend would give Phillips his first NHL action since his debut back on May 19, 2021.

“I think I’ve continued to improve every season and I feel good,” Phillips stated in his typically low-key manner before the call came. “I think work ethic is kind of the base of my game and everything stems from that. Just keep doing that, getting to the net, and having fun playing, and see where that takes me.”

Where it has taken him to is back to the NHL. But while that clamor for Phillips continued to intensify, Phillips quietly went about his business all along as the Wranglers work to establish themselves in the Calgary hockey market. That is all he ever has done, after all.

Too small at 5-foot-8. Not strong enough at 160 pounds. A sixth-round draft pick. Those have been some of the knocks against Phillips for much of his career.

But Phillips has not had to look very far for signs of hope to counter those doubts from others. Flames forward Andrew Mangiapane was another slight-of-stature sixth-rounder, who went a year ahead of Phillips in the NHL Draft. He put in parts of three AHL seasons as a Flames prospect before graduating to full-time NHL work. Then he racked up 35 goals last season and went on to secure himself a new three-year, $17.4-million contract in the offseason.

“Mangiapane is a guy we talk about a lot down here,” Phillips told TheAHL.com last season. “He truly worked his way up. He wasn’t given anything. He’s had to earn everything he has.”

Still, last season’s 31-goal season in the AHL did not carry Phillips into an NHL job coming out of training camp. The Calgary native passed through NHL waivers and found himself back in the AHL for a fifth season.

So Phillips just went back to work. He leaves the Wranglers in the middle of an eight-game scoring streak — his second such run already this season — and took AHL Player of the Month honors for November for his 18-point performance in 12 contests.

The Flames have been watching. Head coach Darryl Sutter, whose son, Brett, captains the Wranglers, takes in the AHL club’s home games when his schedule allows. Flames management works in the same building. Nobody is lost in the shuffle there.

“You always know when the Flames [have] home games on the schedule,” Phillips said, “so you know that the management will be there watching. I think that’s a good thing. I think it encourages everyone to bring their best every day.”

Forget about too small, too slight, or not a serious NHL candidate; just ask his AHL opponents or other head coaches what they think of Phillips, who has been a headache for them since his 2018-19 rookie year. They see what everyone sees: Phillips utilizes a savvy, tenacious approach. A strong skater, he is deceptive with and without the puck, he can win battles in tight despite nearly always giving up size, and he exhibits a consistent willingness to compete net-front and challenge defenders for ice.

Part of an explosive top line with Radim Zohorna and Jakob Pelletier, Phillips has fueled a Wranglers offense that leads the AHL scoring 4.15 goals per game and ranks second on the power play at 29.4 percent (30-for-102). At 13-6-1-0, Calgary sits second in the Pacific Division and third overall in the Western Conference.

Phillips clicked quickly last season with Pelletier, himself a smaller, shifty forward and a first-round pick by the Flames in the 2019 NHL Draft who earned a spot on the AHL All-Rookie Team last season. Now Zohorna, a 6-foot-7, 225-pound preseason waiver acquisition from the Pittsburgh organization, has brought considerable size to the line.

“[Pelletier and I] work extremely well together,” Phillips explained. “We think the game in a similar way. We’re similar players, and it’s pretty seamless with him. [Playing] with Zohorna has been great. He’s a big body. He forechecks really well. He wins a lot of battles down low and gets the puck into our hands.”

Phillips is also well-tested in Calder Cup Playoff competition as well. With Stockton last season, he reached the Western Conference Finals.

“That playoff run was huge,” Phillips explained. “I think that was a ton of fun for me personally and for our team. You just grow so much as a player in playoff games, and you really find out what people are all about. I think a lot of hard work went into getting our team to that level, and we’re trying to do that again this year.

“Having the same coaching staff back from that playoff run and a lot of players… We’re pretty hungry. We want to get back to that point.”

Phillips and the Wranglers do have unfinished postseason business. Another deep springtime run would not surprise anyone around the AHL. Dustin Wolf is excelling once again in net, the Wranglers can roll four strong lines, and they possess an experienced blue line. But that pursuit is for later. This NHL challenge is what is in front of Phillips this weekend.

“That’s what I [have been] working towards since I turned pro,” Phillips said. “To get a call.”


After outscoring San Diego 13-3 in a pair of road wins last weekend, the Wranglers will see the Gulls again this weekend, this time on Calgary ice.

The teams open a two-game set tonight at Scotiabank Saddledome. They then will star in the AHLTV Free Game of the Week on Sunday afternoon (3 ET/noon PT).

San Diego, which has scored just eight goals over its current six-game losing streak, acquired forward David Cotton from Coachella Valley on Thursday. Cotton, who has skated in two games with the Firebirds, spent last season with the Chicago Wolves, recording seven goals and nine assists in 55 games.

🏒 Six more AHL players played their first NHL games in the past week, bringing the season total to 29.

Springfield Thunderbirds forward Will Bitten debuted with the St. Louis Blues last Saturday following 232 games in the AHL. Tied for the Springfield team lead with eight goals this season, Bitten picked up an assist in the Blues’ 7-4 win on Long Island on Tuesday night.

Forward Kirill Marchenko and defenseman Tim Berni both made their NHL debuts for the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday in Pittsburgh. Marchenko, a second-round pick by Columbus in 2018, has climbed to second in AHL rookie scoring with 19 points (eight goals, 11 assists) in 16 games for the Cleveland Monsters. Berni, a sixth-round choice in 2018, has a goal and three assists in 15 games with Cleveland this season. They joined Monsters defensemen Gavin Bayreuther and Marcus Bjork in the Columbus lineup on Tuesday.

Semyon Der-Arguchintsev debuted with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night, skating in their 4-0 win at Dallas. Der-Arguchintsev, a 22-year-old third-round draft pick in 2018, has 18 points (six goals, 12 assists) in 20 games for the Marlies this season.

On Wednesday, Cal Burke stepped into the Colorado Avalanche lineup against Boston after picking up 11 points (six goals, five assists) in 21 games for the Colorado Eagles this season. Burke was joined in the Avs lineup by fellow Eagles call-ups Charles Hudon, Ben Meyers, Martin Kaut, Sampo Ranta, Jean-Luc Foudy and Andreas Englund.

And Eetu Makiniemi made his NHL debut on Wednesday, playing the third period and overtime of the San Jose Sharks’ 6-5 loss at Vancouver. The 23-year-old Makiniemi, who came to the Sharks organization in an offseason deal with Carolina, is 6-4-1 with a 2.57 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage in 12 appearances with the San Jose Barracuda this season. He came to the organization in an offseason deal with the Carolina Hurricanes, who had taken him in the fourth round of the 2017 NHL Draft. He made 40 saves this past Sunday to send the Barracuda past the visiting Tucson Roadrunners in overtime, 4-3.

Toronto Marlies forward Semyon Der-Arguchintsev and Callahan Burke of the Colorado Eagles round out the past week’s group.  and was in the line-up for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday. Burke, 25, stepped into the Colorado Avalanche line-up Wednesday. He earned the call-up after picking up 11 points (six goals, five assists) in 21 games for the Eagles.

🏒 In what has become an annual winter tradition, some of the AHL’s premier young prospects will soon be off to prepare themselves for the IIHF World Junior Championship.

Utica Comets defenseman Simon Nemec has been invited by Slovakia to train with its entry for the tournament. The 18-year-old Nemec, who went second overall in this past July’s NHL Draft to the New Jersey Devils, has settled in nicely in head coach Kevin Dineen’s defensive rotation, playing all 19 games so far and picking up seven points (two goals, five assists).

Sweden has extended invitations to two first-round forwards, Fabian Lysell of the Providence Bruins and Isak Rosen of the Rochester Americans. Lysell, 19, has five goals and nine assists in 17 games for the AHL-leading Bruins this season, while the 19-year-old Rosen has collected three goals and 11 assists in 21 games for the Amerks.

Shane Wright, coming off a conditioning assignment with Coachella Valley in which he netted four goals in five games, will be in camp with Canada. Wright, who went fourth overall in last summer’s NHL Draft to Seattle, scored his first career NHL goal on Tuesday night.

The 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship tournament begins Dec. 26 in Halifax, N.S. and Moncton, N.B.

🏒 Top prospect Lukas Reichel of the Rockford IceHogs already has had an eventful week before the weekend has even rolled around. The Chicago Blackhawks put in a call for the 20-year-old for their game Tuesday night in New Jersey after captain Jonathan Toews (illness) could not play. Reichel played 13:58 in his NHL season debut, then returned to the IceHogs in time for their meeting Wednesday with Milwaukee, where his third-period game-tying goal set up his eventual winning shootout tally in a 2-1 victory over the Central Division-leading Admirals.

🏒 The Bakersfield Condors reached back into their past for defensive help in the present, acquiring defenseman Max Gildon on loan from the Florida Panthers last Saturday. Gildon, 23, spent the abbreviated 2020-21 season with the Condors, finishing with 19 points (two goals, 17 assists) in 32 games and earning a spot on the AHL All-Rookie Team. He was limited to 22 games last season for the Charlotte Checkers and had only gotten into six games there this season before the move.

Gildon provides a reliable presence on the blue line for the Condors, who have lost defenseman Philip Broberg to recall by Edmonton.

🏒 Florida has gotten contributions from a trio of Checkers recalls this week. On Tuesday in Winnipeg, Charlotte captain Zac Dalpe made his NHL season debut and scored his first NHL goal since April 2021. Chris Tierney and Matt Kiersted followed up with goals of their own in Thursday’s 5-1 win at Detroit.

🏒 Beset by injuries since opening night, the Belleville Senators have brought in familiar help. Defenseman Jack Dougherty signed a professional tryout deal with the Sens this week, bringing him back to the club for a third stint. He made his AHL season debut on Wednesday at Toronto, his 300th career AHL contest.

🏒 The finish line is almost in sight for the Coachella Valley Firebirds, whose two-month road adventure begins to wind down this weekend as they visit San Jose tonight and Bakersfield on Saturday. The Firebirds have won four in a row and are 11-4-2-0 overall with five more games left before opening night at Acrisure Arena, set for Dec. 18 against Tucson.

🏒 Another team readying itself for home cooking is the Iowa Wild. The Wild are in Rockford for games tonight and Saturday before opening a run of 15 of 18 games at Wells Fargo Arena that will stretch until the end of January. Iowa has gone 7-4-1-0 on the road so far this season.

🏒 Fighting for first place in the AHL, the Hershey Bears got a rude awakening from the visiting Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins last Sunday. With the Bears looking for their sixth consecutive victory, the archrival Penguins overwhelmed Hershey with five goals in 7:07 — three of them in a 2:02 span — to open the second period and take a 7-3 win. Hershey head coach Todd Nelson took the hit for his players afterward.

“I’ll take responsibility for it,” Nelson said. “We thought as a staff that we did the right things to get the guys ready. Obviously we didn’t.”

The Bears responded two nights later, knocking off visiting Charlotte, 4-2.

🏒 Defenseman Christian Wolanin is back with Abbotsford after a quick recall to Vancouver this week. Wolanin is the reigning Howies Hockey Tape/AHL Player of the Week after notching 10 points in four games last week, and he brings a 12-game scoring streak into the Canucks’ weekend set with Manitoba.

🏒 The Marlies have their captain. The team announced Wednesday that forward Logan Shaw will assume the role from Rich Clune, who retired after last season. Shaw had captained Belleville the previous two seasons before signing a three-year AHL deal to join the Marlies in the offseason. Shaw has risen to a fifth-place tie in AHL scoring with a team-best 25 points (eight goals, 17 assists) in 22 games for the North-leading Marlies, who visit Syracuse tonight.