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Craig Conroy sees plenty of potential in diminutive but deadly Flames prospect Matthew Phillips

by TORIE PETERSON @ToriePeterson /

Craig Conroy can't say that he expected it.

However, Matthew Phillips' eye-popping offensive production this season in the Western Hockey League isn't exactly a surprise for the Flames' assistant general manager.

"I don't put anything past Matty," Conroy told "We wanted to draft him was because when you would go to the games, he was small but he was the difference-maker. In all the games I watched the year we drafted him and ever since, he's the difference-maker. When you walk out of the games, you go, 'Wow.' He always finds a way."

At the mid-way mark of November, the diminutive winger has 15 goals and 37 points in 21 games, leading the Victoria Royals and sitting fourth in the WHL scoring race.

"For a smaller guy like that, he has to be on the scoresheet because he's not going to be a checker or finishing all his hits. Even though he does all that stuff, that's not going to be his calling card. It's about putting up points. To have him get off to the start he's had, scoring at the pace he is, it's very impressive. It's fun to watch."

While Phillips' passing ability and shot are exceptional, his best attribute is his hockey sense. He has always been one of the smallest players on his teams throughout the years, making it essential for him to develop a smart game. Right now, the Calgary native is listed at 5-foot-7 and 155 lb. and is one of the smallest players in the WHL.

He's particularly effective on the powerplay, moving the puck through open lanes with ease and getting into prime scoring positions before the opposition realizes what he's doing.

"He's got great vision, sense and feel," Conroy explained. "He knows where everybody is on the ice. And he's elusive enough - especially at the junior level - that he just beats guys and makes plays.

"He's got a great stick and with his brain and vision, it's exciting to watch. When you look from above and you see the open guy, sometimes junior players don't see it. He's one of those guys that see it. And he sees it quickly - kind of like some top players in the NHL, how they see it a much higher, quicker pace."

Conroy, who has been watching Phillips since the 2015-16 season, has no doubt the forward has all the tools to produce offensively at the professional level. What he is hoping to see is Phillips rounding out the details of his game and making sure he's physically preparing himself to play against men.

"You want his game to be complete," Conroy said. "You want to see him continue to get stronger, he's going to have to get a little bit quicker - especially at this level. He's fine in junior, he'd be fine most places, but for the NHL, he needs to be a little quicker and elusive, because he's not big.

"You see how Johnny does it … Matthew is a little more reckless with his body as a smaller guy. He'll go into traffic and he's fearless. Sometimes I think he thinks he's 6-foot-4 and he plays like that, which you love, but he also needs to know how he's going to get around at a higher, NHL, pro pace."

Phillips' 2016-17 season and his blazing start this year earned him a roster spot on Team WHL for the recent Canada-Russia Series. Phillips put up one goal in the two games against the Russians.

The tournament, like this past summer's World Junior Summer Showcase that Phillips participated in, is an evaluating tool for Hockey Canada ahead of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship.

"Any time they can play in any of those big tournaments - the world juniors, Canada-Russia series - it's exciting for me and for him. Because you want to see your guys go through that. Those are experiences of a lifetime … when you get an opportunity to play in something like that, it's a great experience and it's something you're going to remember forever.

"I hope we get to see him there."

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