Even though he only possesses a 5-foot-6, 137-pound frame, Victoria Royals centre Matthew Phillips has asserted himself as one of the Western Hockey League’s top rookies this season. He sits second in the league’s freshman scoring race with 22 goals and 45 points in 44 games.
Phillips’ point production speaks volumes on its own, but it’s even more impressive when considering the hyped talents he has outperformed on the stats sheet. He’s outscored all the 2014 bantam draft picks, albeit he is a year older with a 1998 birthdate. Moreover, he’s notched more points than potential 2016 first-round NHL picks Sam Steel (Regina Pats) and Brett Howden (Moose Jaw Warriors).
Modest and humble, Phillips credits his teammates for his early WHL success.
“The older guys have helped me transition to this level,” says Phillips, who turns 18 in April. “I have really good linemates and we work well together. A guy like Alex Forsberg has helped me out a lot; he has a lot of skill and playing with him has been great. Dante Hannoun is great to play with, too. He’s quick out there and makes lots of great plays.”
In a league full of lanky and imposing teenagers, Phillips has discovered he has to play a “quick” and “aggressive” style in order to thrive at the major junior level. In addition, he knows he can’t let bigger opponents intimidate him in the gritty areas of the game.
“Being quick is important and trying to be first to the puck every time,” he says. “You have to be aggressive and want the puck. I also have to move the puck around with give and goes and be aware of where guys are out there. I have to keep my head up because guys are looking to throw big hits, but I also can’t be afraid to go in the dirty areas and go hard to the net.”
Although not many would have predicted he would have a point-per-game ratio at the midway point of the year, the Calgary, Alta., native did come into this season with an impressive hockey resume. He was a dominant force in the Alberta Major Midget AAA Hockey League last year, racking up 33 markers and 73 points in 34 games with the Calgary Buffaloes.
“I had a lot of fun last season,” says Phillips, whom the Royals chose 33rd overall in the 2013 WHL bantam draft. “I was the captain and I grew a lot as a leader and a player. I developed a lot and got to play in all situations and got to play a lot of minutes.”
With hindsight vision, Phillips sees the upside in not making Victoria as a 16 year old because of how much he developed in his second year of Midget AAA.
“It was disappointing to get cut last year, especially since I worked really hard all summer to try to make that team,” he says. “I really wanted to make the team and it was a big goal of mine. But when looking back, I see it was the best thing for me to go back to Calgary. I gained a lot of confidence and grew a lot as a player.”
Despite his strong play in Victoria, NHL Central Scouting Service didn’t even rank Phillips in its November Watch list for the 2016 draft. The speedy and skilled forward didn’t let the puzzling snub bother him, though. He is used to hearing critics doubt his on-ice capabilities because of his smaller frame.
“Growing up as a smaller player, people have doubted me, but it hasn’t really bothered me,” he says. “I’ve always believed in myself and that’s what matters. I don’t go out there trying to prove people wrong, but I want to prove something to myself.”
Phillips doesn’t have to look far to know the NHL draft is not the be-all and end-all. Victoria’s captain, Joe Hicketts, was passed over in the 2014 draft partially because of his smaller 5-foot-8 frame; however, it didn’t seem to matter since he signed an entry-level contract with the Detroit Red Wings three months later.
“He’s (Hicketts) a great example of that,” says Phillips on smaller players making it. “He’s a great defenceman and has shown you don’t need to be that big.”
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen