PHILLIPS SETTLING IN WITH STOCKTON
The winger has gained valuable experience during his stint with the Heatby AARON VICKERS @AAVickers / CalgaryFlames.com
Forgive Matthew Phillips for being a little nervous.
At just 19, and at just 5-foot-7, he immediately became everyone's little brother, again, when he signed an amateur try-out to join the Stockton Heat.
"It's a pretty unique experience, honestly," Phillips said.
"You're walking in there and there are guys more than 10 years older than me. It's different, for sure. It was a new experience. I didn't know how it would shape out but it was awesome. Everyone was extremely welcoming and they made it easy for the younger guys that don't quite know the routine. They were extremely helpful.
"It was intimidating the first few days, but everyone's been really good to me and made it a lot easier for me coming here as the youngest guy."
The dip down to sunny California was a silver lining on a disappointing end to Phillips' season with the Victoria Royals of the Western Hockey League.
He netted 50 goals in the regular season (the first Calgary Flames prospect to hit that mark in the WHL since Ryan Howse notched 51 in 2010-11), and had three points before his Royals were ousted in six playoff games by the Everett Silvertips.
Victoria was out; Phillips wasn't.
"I think it's disappointing when you lose in the first round," said Phillips, who added 40 assists for 90 regular-season points. "No team strives to lose out in the first round. That's unfortunate. But the opportunity I've got to come out here was definitely the next best things.
"It's really good.
"You follow the AHL and the Heat throughout the year and you're curious what it's like up here. Now that I'm here, I kind of know what to expect so I can give myself a much better idea of what I need to do in the summer. I think it's really good.
"I've learned a lot and have had a lot of fun so far."
The learning curve, he'll admit, is steep.
But he's had some help along the way.
"I think once you're around it a little bit more you adjust fairly quickly," Stockton coach Ryan Huska said. "Part of that comes with practicing at a higher level and a faster pace, and using that practice time to carry over into the games.
"He hasn't just eased into it. He's playing against one of the quicker teams and I think he's done a good job."
Video: Get to know Flames prospect Matthew Phillips
Phillips netted his first pro point -- an assist -- in his pro debut against the Tucson Roadrunners, minor-league affiliate of the Arizona Coyotes, on April 15.
The experience, he admitted, reminded him of his first junior game with Victoria some two years ago.
"I had about a week to practice and watch a few games," Phillips started. "That helped out. I got a little more comfortable and understood the systems a little better. There were nerves and stuff like that when you play your first game at whatever level. The first few shifts I was a little bit nervous but you go from there. It was really good.
"I was excited to get the opportunity to play."
Phillips has dressed in two games for the Heat in their opening round best-of-five series opposite the San Jose Barracuda.
"It's going to be speed, but I think it's also going to be finding out how to use his size against bigger and stronger guys … learning how to quickly protect pucks or find yourself in a battle situation where he still needs to come out with those pucks," Huska said. "He's learning how to position himself differently against men, as opposed to opponents in junior hockey."
Therein lies the value, too.
It'll be advice Phillips can pass on to his teammates in Victoria next year.
When he's one of the elder statesmen. One of the leaders.
Welcoming a young kid into the Royals' room.
It's also the approach he's taking in Stockton.
"I think whenever you're at a new level a lot of things are going to be different … linemates, coaches, that kind of things," Phillips said. "The big thing I learned growing up is focus on what you can control. That's what I try to do in those new situations and focus on myself and my work ethic and go from there.
"It's kind of a little basic thing I try to do if it's ever a new situation.
"You just focus on how you work and the rest will play out."