CHL Notebook: Royals’ Matthew Phillips one to watch on Team WHL

Victoria Royals forward Matthew Phillips. (Jonathon Howe/Victoria Royals)

There are five-foot-six degrees of separation between the Victoria Royals’ Matthew Phillips and some of the other short-of-stature, long-on-puck-sense talents who have graced the world junior championship.

Of all the reasons to follow the CIBC Canada Russia Series, which begins tonight in Moose Jaw, Sask., with Team WHL facing Russia (Sportsnet One, 8 p.m. ET), the biggest is to see whether a top scorer such as Phillips (CGY) can make a bid to make the grade for Team Canada. In all honestly, in any season a good 14 or 15 positions on Canada’s 22-player roster are self-evident, based on retention and who came close as an 18-year-old, such the Regina Pats’ Sam Steel (ANA). It’s those remaining places that can decide the make-up of a team.

The first point of reference with Phillips is always his listed size of five foot seven and 150 pounds. On top of the snazzy stats — third in WHL scoring, 50-goal scorer last season — Phillips has come along with the 200-foot game, showing some penalty-killing acumen by potting a WHL-most four short-handed goals. The fact that the Calgary native, whom the Flames took No. 166 overall in 2016, had the lowest NHL draft position among any invitee to Hockey Canada’s development camp in August just sort of amplifies the against-the-odds angle with Phillips.

Big-time junior stats are worthless scrip at the WJC level, but there is more to Phillips’ game than that. Point being, the annual six-game series, from a fan’s point of view, is about seeing who can level up at this stage. It’s not an open tryout, but someone can still play his way into the picture.

There are, coincidentally, some parallels with Phillips and other undersized players. Another Royals player, defenceman Joe Hicketts (five foot eight), played for Team Canada in 2015 and ’16, contributing to a gold medal the first time. Phillips is somewhere down on the Flames’ depth chart below winger Johnny Gaudreau, who scored seven goals for gold-medal-winning Team USA in 2013. Montreal Canadiens winger Brendan Gallagher also helped Canada earn a bronze medal in 2012.

Game 2 of the Canada-Russia series is in Swift Current, Sask., on Tuesday, followed by the OHL portion (Owen Sound, Thursday; Sudbury, Monday) and closing QMJHL leg (Charlottetown, Nov. 14; Moncton, Nov. 16).

Michnac makes splash

The Mississauga Steelheads’ Albert Michnac would lead his original OHL team in goals just off last weekend alone.

The 18-year-old Czech Republic native spurred the improving Steelheads (4-0-2 during a six-game team point streak) with an eight-goal, 22-shot weekend that included two hat tricks. The second trifecta came during a 9-2 rout against the Peterborough Petes on Sunday. (On top of the loss, the Petes also came out of that with top-end centre Jonathan Ang facing a possible suspension for a cross-checking match penalty.)

Michnac has 12 goals and 23 assists across 17 games with the Steelheads, who took him in the import draft in June after he was let go by the Guelph Storm. While the Storm are trending upward overall, no Guelph player has more than five goals.

Of course, it’s not as though Guelph did not know what it had in Michnac. The Prague native had a decent-enough 15 goals and 39 points last season as a late-birthday 17-year-old who was in his first season in North America. But being a non-playoff team for the second consecutive season afforded Guelph the opportunity to pick early in the import draft and added a NHL-drafted power winger in Alexey Toropchenko (STL). That said, Guelph’s need to upgrade created a windfall for Mississauga.

Moncton miracle

The Moncton Wildcats were not on any magazine covers last season proclaiming them future Quebec League champions, but they are demonstrating the art of a turnaround. In spite of a winless road trip last week while 16-year-old rookie Jakob Pelletier was away at the world under-17 hockey challenge, the Wildcats (.600 point pct., eighth overall in the QMJHL) have pushed up to the top half of the league.

Fellow 18-year-olds Mika Cyr and Jeremy McKenna, were among the shock troops who got a baptism by fire in the second half of last season, when Moncton lost 34 of its final 35 games. Both have blossomed into top-five scorers that draw attention away from the young Pelletier. Hockey operations director Roger Shannon’s manoeuvring during the draft — where Moncton made seven trades, including one for No. 1 goalie Mark Gramatbauer — has also shown there is a small avenue to replenish through trading.

The QMJHL’s Maritimes Division has daunting competition, especially with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan loading up by acquiring German Rubtsov (PHI) from Chicoutimi. It’s commendable whenever a team bounces back quickly. Moncton could exceed last season’s 31-point total by the end of November.

Taking it outside

There is one argument for the WHL having its teams in the U.S. Pacific Northwest play in an outdoor game. Last week, the Taking Note blog reported that the WHL is “looking into the possibility” of staging games at Safeco Field midway through next season, meaning early in 2019.

For a myriad of reasons, the CHL keeps its tent-pole events — MasterCard Memorial Cup, Canada Russia Series and Top Prospects Game — north of the border. The greater novelty of playing in outdoor stadiums might be on the wane, but it’s still trickling down to junior hockey markets (case in point: Regina). A showcase could help the Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips, et al., stand out in a crowded sports landscape in Washington state.

Canadian NHL team prospect of the week: Juuso Välimäki, D, Tri-City Americans (WHL)

Whatever adjective has replaced sick in current teenage argot applies, 100 times over, to the goal that Välimäki, the Calgary Flames first-rounder, scored during Tri-City’s win against the Spokane Chiefs last Saturday. On a breakaway, shorthanded, as a defenceman, and he pulled the Marek Malik between-the-legs move on Spokane goalie Dawson Weatherill.

The six-foot-two, 211-pound Välimäki had perhaps his most productive week since rejoining Tri-City, with back-to-back two-point efforts during a pair extra-time Ams’ wins. The native of Nokia, Finland is now up to a point-per-game pace (4G-8A-12PT in 12 games) after re-acclimating to the WHL pace after his first NHL camp with Calgary.

New name to know: Cole Schwindt, RW, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL)

It was one thing for the 16-year-old Schwindt to play big minutes for Mississsauga in the very first weeks of the season when teams want to see how much a rookie can handle, but the six-foot-two winger is keeping it up. Schwindt, whom the Steelheads took in the fourth round (No. 69 overall) in the OHL priority selection draft in April, is fourth among all rookies (and second among 16-year-olds) with six goals in 17 games. That included scoring in back-to-back games this past week.

Schwindt, who played for the Kitchener Jr. Rangers in his draft year, also played for Canada’s national under-16 ball hockey team last season. Presumably that helped not only with the finesse to finish around the net, but with developing the endurance to step in the OHL. After all, ball hockey aficionados say their game is just like ice hockey, but without all the gliding.