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ROOKIE NO MORE

With his first season of pro hockey under his belt, Calgary native Matthew Phillips is looking to take next step this fall

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / CalgaryFlames.com

Back in the old hometown.

With new digs and a shiny new set of wheels being the first orders of business.

"I'd been looking online for a while, eyeing things out back here while I was still in Stockton," reports Matthew Phillips. "So that when I got back to Calgary, I'd be able to get right on it.

"It's been a busy time, but we've got a couple weeks off so I wanted to get some of that stuff out of the way."

Year One of the pro hockey experience is in the books for the Flames' locally-born sixth-round pick of 2016.

And …?

"I'm happy with the progress I made,'' replies Phillips. "Mentally, the pro game is very different. In junior, the majority of teams have three or four guys they just kinda count on, lean on.

"When you're one of those guys it's not the same at the next level, where it's a lot more spread out and you have a smaller window to make an impact on the game.

"Every little detail seems a lot bigger at that next level because you get less opportunity. We had a deep team, scored a lot of goals, in Stockton. We had a lot of good players.

"That's the biggest difference, maximizing the ice time you're given. And that's where you see the growth in players, learning to make the right plays all the time with the puck.

"That's just stuff I had to figure out."

 

Video: Phillips converts in the slot

 

Through the season, Phillips shared lodgings with fellow pro freshman Glenn Gawdin in Lodi, Calif., a 15-minute drive north of Stockton, heading towards Sacramento (and made quasi-famous by a 1969 Credence Clearwater Revival song named after the town, found on the 45 flip side of the chart-topping Bad Moon Rising).

"It was," he confesses, "a bit of a shock moving into our place. Those first couple weeks … one of the most challenging things of the whole year.

"But after that, once you get into a rhythm, everything's fine.

"It's also a bit of a jolt, all of a sudden having teammates with kids."

On the ice, reality, for the most part, mirrored expectation.

"Everyone goes through the process a little differently,'' Phillips reasons. "Honestly, it didn't come too easily for me, and that's fine.

"It's a tough transition, a big jump. So it's not a problem that feeling entirely comfortable wasn't an overnight thing.

"Week by week, I think I was growing as a player. Which is what you want to be doing, especially in the American League."

Size - Phillips is listed at 5-foot-7 and 155-lbs. - was always going to be a talking point in his case.

 

 

"Actually, it was more the speed that took some getting used to," he explains. "When you break that down, though, it did have a lot to do with guys being bigger, way longer sticks, more powerful in their skating.

"But going 1-on-1 against guys was pretty much what I'd anticipated."

After the inevitable feeling-out start, finishing with 13 goals and 38 points over 65 starts represents an encouraging first turn.

"The best thing I can say about Matt Phillips is that, bottom line, he adapted well," critiques Heat coach Cail MacLean.

"He really did come to understand how the game was going and how he could fit into it. You look at his trajectory, and the last third of the year he really seemed to figure things out.

"I think it took him some time given the assets he's working with how he was going to be able utilize those assets.

"For Matthew, that's being able to have the puck more often. So he started to use his sense of timing and quickness to put himself in positions where he could either escape with the puck or else strip a puck off someone.

"When he had the puck more often, he just made things happen. Now the step he has to take is to do that on a daily basis.

"One of the great things about Matt Phillips that I think people underestimate is that he plays really well away from the puck. Defensively, he's reliable. So it's not like you're trying to get him to grow offensively while having to teach him the defensive side of the game, like you have to with a lot of other guys."

Flames general manager Brad Treliving, too, is pleased with the way Phillips was trending as the season ground along.

"Big learning curve but like he's done at every level he had to sort of find his way. You know, the player will sometimes say he's got to an opportunity, the coach will say tell you you've got earn your opportunity. In this case, I think there was a little bit of both.

"And then he really took off.

"Matthew's got some other challenges, we've talked about his size, but no different than in junior and in all the steps he's taken, he figured it out and became a pretty productive player down there."

Returned home for the off-season, Phillips will join the strength and conditioning coach Ryan Van Asten's training group and the on-ice sessions held around town.

"Last summer was one of the best summers I've had,'' he recalls. "And obviously if you feel that good and still end up in the American League for the whole season, you've got to do a lot better in the summer.

"You've got to push yourself even harder.

"Which is what I plan on doing."

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