Washington Capitals head coach Spencer Carbery opened a bunch of eyes when he sent out his main practice group onto the ice at MedStar Capitals Iceplex on Monday morning. Skating on the team’s top line with Caps legends Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom was AHL All-Star Matthew Phillips.
Phillips, who is coming off a standout preseason performance against the Detroit Red Wings, was signed by the Caps to a one-year, $775,000 contract this past offseason. The small but offensively-gifted forward was expected to be in the running for one of the final roster spots up front but a promotion of this magnitude never seemed in the cards.
Carbery spoke to the media after the skate about what Phillips has done to earn an extended look during Training Camp and why he’s getting an opportunity most can only dream about.
“He’s done a really good job through Training Camp and I think last game put the coaching staff more on notice of what he does,” Carbery said. “You’re starting to see a player that is obviously undersized but it doesn’t affect him a whole lot when it comes to his compete level, ability to get in on the forecheck, and win loose pucks.
“He’s going to get bumped around a little bit but we’ve just found his game to be really effective of keeping pucks alive, making plays when they’re available, and being in good spots within the structure part we talked about. He’s been dialed in. He’s doing a good job of making a case for himself.”
In that game where Carbery says he and the rest of his staff were put “on notice”, Phillips made a great individual effort to earn an assist on the team’s first goal and then sniped home the team’s second goal after a pretty tic-tac-toe play with linemates Dylan Strome and Sonny Milano.
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This opportunity with the Caps is Phillips’ first ever pro minutes outside of the Calgary Flames organization. Phillips was drafted by the team in the sixth round of the 2016 NHL Draft but Calgary never really gave the hometown kid a chance to make their NHL roster.
“I think there’s a huge benefit for him [joining a new organization] and he’s trying to take advantage of it,” Carbery said. “There’s opportunity, too, and he’s got someone that’s an advocate for him [in Mitch Love]. He’s seen him more than any human on the planet for the last two years, every day in practice, and all the games.”
Under Love in the AHL with both the Stockton Heat and Calgary Wranglers, Phillips put up 144 points (67g, 77a) in 131 games. Those two teams were ultra successful, posting a combined 96-33-11 record with Phillips as their leading scorer in both years.
“Think about that too, the last two years, how many wins has that kid been a part of,” Carbery said. “Winning hockey. And, he’s a first-line player in that lineup. So, what does that tell me? It tells me he’s part of a winning team, captain obvious, but also that he’s making plays, he’s in winning games, and he’s doing the things that a winning team requires. I have a lot of time for that.”
Carbery has emphasized pace of play almost endlessly through Training Camp and Phillips believes that he can play a big role in helping the Caps play faster. “I think I have a similar view of how to play the game to how we’re trying to play here,” Phillips said. “A lot of speed and quickness. It’s a different pace of play in the NHL and I do think my game translates. For me it’s all about just getting to [the front of the net] as that’s where I seem to produce.”
Although he skated with Ovi and Backstrom on Monday, Phillips has primarily skated with the team’s current third line that includes Dylan Strome and Sonny Milano. Getting Phillips reps with the bottom two lines, where he ultimately may end up, is something Carbery has talked about on multiple occasions now.
“I think it’s specific to each guy,” Carbery said. “Do we feel comfortable with Matt Phillips potentially playing in a bottom-six role and being able to be productive there? And then with opportunity in game or opportunity due to injury he bumps up and now we can play him in more of an offensive role.”
Phillips was adamant that he believes he can play up and down the lineup. That will be vital for him especially once marquee free-agency signing Max Pacioretty returns from injury and the spots in the top-six group are likely filled up.
“I think I’m a pretty responsible player,” Phillips said. “I take a lot of pride on both sides of the puck and that’s something I’ve learned a lot since I turned pro. Use my quickness and still provide help for the team whether it’s offense or being on top of pucks and getting them back in the zone.”
Although the process of making an NHL team is not an easy one, Phillips kept it simple on what he plans to do over the next week and a half to realize a dream.
“It’s cliche, but [take it] day by day. Don’t overthink, just show up, put on your jersey – whatever color, and go to work.”
Headline photo: Katie Adler/RMNB
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