When the Calgary Flames made Theoren Fleury the 166th overall pick in the 1987 NHL Entry Draft, the surprise move definitely turned some heads and fired up the naysayers. There was no way the 5-foot-6 native of Oxbow, Saskatchewan could crack the roster and actually play a game for the boys in red, right? Well, we all know how that turned out. Three decades later, we could see another diminutive 166th overall pick make the opening night lineup when the Flames drop the puck on the 2021-22 season: 5-foot-7 Matthew Phillips.
While both of these speedy wingers are gifted puck handlers, their overall style of play could not be more different. Phillips plays a pure finesse game, while Fleury broke into the league at a time when big bruisers patrolled the blue lines, looking to punish forwards every time they entered the offensive zone. Fortunately for Fleury, he wasn’t afraid to play a physical brand hockey or even drop the gloves. No. 14 was a tough as they come and definitely played a lot bigger than his size.
After being drafted in the eighth round (which actually doesn’t even exist anymore), Fleury would put up a mind-boggling 160 points in 65 games for the WHL Moose Jaw Warriors before reporting to Calgary’s International Hockey League (IHL) affiliate for the final few games of their regular season and lengthy playoff run. While in Salt Lake, the little guy with a big heart would light it up, scoring 23 points in 10 games to lead the Golden Eagles to the Turner Cup championship. The following season saw the Flames initially ship Fleury back to their IHL farm team after he failed to impress at the 1988-89 pre-season training camp.
That snub must have lit a fire under the 20-year-old winger, as he averaged nearly two points a game in the IHL, posting 37 goals and 37 helpers in only 40 contests. The Flames called up Fleury on Jan. 1, 1989, and the crafty rookie immediately made an impact at the NHL level, recording 34 points in his first 36 games. He also proved that he could produce in the playoffs, adding 11 more points in the postseason while helping the Flames win the franchise’s first and only Stanley Cup.
Phillips put up massive offensive numbers while playing for the WHL Victoria Royals. As a rookie in 2015-16, he notched 37 goals and 76 points in just 72 games, and that was enough for Calgary to roll the dice on the shifty skater and draft him 166th overall in 2016. The Calgary native hit the 50-goal mark the following season, which only five players in the entire league managed to accomplish. After finishing fifth in league, scoring with 112 points (48 goals, 64 assists) in his final WHL season, the Flames rewarded the small sniper by signing him to a three-year entry-level contract on Dec. 31, 2017.
Every undersized player faces the same big question: will their success at the junior level translate into success at the pro level? Phillips didn’t do himself any favours or silence the critics after a terrible start with the Stockton Heat. The native Calgarian scored zero points in the first eight games of the 2018-19 season. Fortunately, the speedy winger was absolutely fantastic after that hiccup, and he never looked back.
Phillips finished his rookie season with 38 points, with 25 of those coming at even strength. He followed that up with a red-hot start to his 2019-20 season, notching 30 points in just 28 games before an injury knocked him out of the lineup for almost two months. The sixth-round pick struggled when he finally returned to the ice but only got in 10 games before COVID-19 canceled the remainder of the season. The diminutive forward returned to top form for his third AHL campaign, leading the Heat in scoring with 21 points in 30 games.
Phillips has been a good soldier for the Flames, patiently waiting for his chance to lace them up in the big leagues. After playing three pro seasons in the AHL, no Heat player has more goals than the 5-foot-7 spark plug. This is a strong skater and an excellent set-up man who also has the ability to finish. The 23-year-old has shown great vision, while his rapid footwork keeps opposing players guessing where he’ll go next. The Flames know all of this and finally gave Phillips his NHL debut on May 19 — the final game of the regular season.
The hometown boy looked decidedly small out there, but he did not look out of place playing with the big club. Phillips was over the moon to finally get his shot, and he proved that he should definitely get an extended look when the Flames’ training camp opens up in September. Playing on a line with Heat teammate Adam Ruzicka, the AHL all-star made an impact with a couple of glorious scoring chances that he ultimately couldn’t convert. After the game, the Calgary native told Sportsnet that finally realizing his NHL dream was a pretty big deal.
“It’s the NHL, it’s the best league in the world. It shouldn’t be easy to reach this point. I’ve had to work extremely hard to make it to this point and I’ve been so lucky to have so many people that have just supported me and always empowered me and helped me believe in myself. I have a lot of people to thank for sure. It’s something I’ve been working for all my life, so for it to happen is pretty cool.”
While Fleury ended up becoming a franchise player for the Flames, there are still a lot of questions about Phillips’ ability to make the leap to the NHL. Just because the two players share a similar small stature doesn’t mean you can automatically pencil in Calgary’s top farmhand into the starting lineup in October. For starters, Phillips is maybe 155 pounds soaking wet, doesn’t play a physical style and would undoubtedly be one of the smallest players in the entire NHL. Fleury was a stocky 180-pounder in a compact 5-foot-6 frame, and nobody doubted his ability to take care of himself while out on the ice. In a 2014 interview, the former Flame questioned the capacity of today’s smaller players to compete in his era.
“I was carrying 250-pound defencemen on my back night after night because of the hooking and holding… But a guy like Johnny Gaudreau can play in the NHL right now. He couldn’t play in the era that I played in, unless he changed his style of game… We played because we loved it, and we loved to beat the s— out of each other. That’s just the way it was.”
Another concern is Phillips’ weak defensive play, as he was on the ice for 29 even-strength goals against in 2020–21, the most out of all Heat skaters. However, his 5-on-5 scoring has been among the best in the AHL for three years running, so the Flames must decide if they want to take a big chance on another small forward with tremendous offensive upside in a league dominated by relative Goliaths.
The eventual payoff could be huge if you look at what Fleury accomplished in his 11 seasons in Calgary. On Feb. 19, 1999, No. 14 surpassed Al MacInnis as the Flames’ franchise scoring leader when he tallied his 823rd career point. The former Calgary captain was a pioneer and a trailblazer, as he was one of the first small players to become a dominant force in the NHL, proving that the little guys also deserve a shot at greatness.
I’m not saying Matthew Phillips is a lock to become the next Theoren Fleury, but if the Flames don’t give their second “little late draft pick” the same opportunity, we will never find out.