COLUMBUS — How wonderfully poetic that the night Johnny Gaudreau faces his old team marks the season debut of another diminutive Flame — Matthew Phillips.
So anticipated has been the call-up of the AHL’s leading scorer, it threatens to be a bigger story for Flames fans than the man who carried the club for nine seasons.
“I’m pulling for him — you pull for those guys,” said coach Darryl Sutter, despite making it abundantly clear he’s skeptical the five-foot-seven, 155-pound player can be impactful.
“He deserved the opportunity to get called up.
“He’s an awesome kid, he’s got an awesome skillset and he’s a really good competitor.
“So, the next part is his size. That part is clear.
“Playing a team with good size tonight, so it’s always an issue.”
Flames fans on social media who were stoked to see the Calgary product recalled Thursday were furious Friday morning when they learned Phillips took morning skate on the right side of the fourth line, alongside Trevor Lewis and Milan Lucic.
Hardly the type of scenario a highly-skilled forward generally thrives in.
“He’s not ahead of any of those guys in a top nine role, so that’s a stretch,” said Sutter when asked what he’d say to folks who believe Phillips should be played on one of the top three lines.
“This is the National Hockey League.”
Phillips, who leads the AHL with 15 goals and 15 assists in 20 games, was given one token NHL appearance the final week of the season two years ago and has been stellar in the minors ever since.
“Wherever I’m slotted, my game doesn’t change that much,” shrugged the 24-year-old sixth rounder, who was a Mac’s Midget tourney MVP before moving on to be a 50-goal scorer junior with the Victoria Royals.
“It’s important to be on the right side of the puck and just kind of keep pucks in zones and keep the puck moving north.
“But overall I don’t really want to change my game too much, no matter where I’m playing.”
The irony was not lost that he’ll be facing off against an idol of his, Gaudreau, on Friday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena
“He’s an incredible player, a guy I admired before I was drafted by the Flames,” said Phillips, who is two inches shorter and 10 pounds lighter than Gaudreau.
“I always watch him, and he’s done some incredible things in the league, so it’s pretty cool.
“One thing I like about his game is his patience with the puck.
“He has poise and patience and waits for passing lanes to open up, and he’s always moving his feet. Those are a couple things I try to take from him.”
Asked what the lightest he would have weighed in his early NHL years, Gaudreau smiled.
“I’m sure they’re in the files in the Saddledome somewhere, not sure if someone can find them,” laughed Gaudreau, who had “seven or eight” of his old Flames teammates and a few equipment staffers over for dinner Thursday night.
“That’s awesome for him. I remember seeing him at camp all the time. He’s a great kid and a smart, talented player. I hear he’s having a good year in the American league. I kind of wish him the best because he’s a great kid and I loved coming to training camp with him.”
Does Gaudreau take pride in helping to pave the way for smaller players like Phillips?
“There’s a bunch of smaller players now around the whole league, and before I got in the league there were smaller players that were paving the way too,” he said.
“It’s great to see smaller guys getting the opportunity to play in the league, and it’s even better to see them succeed.”
Whether Phillips can succeed on the fourth line is a hot topic of conversation in Calgary, as many believe his window of opportunity will be short, given Sutter’s preference for big players.
“I think I’ve just built up my game since I turned pro and I’m confident in my ability I can be quick on pucks and make quick plays and get in and around the net,” said Phillips when asked what made him believe he could adapt to playing on the fourth line at the next level.
“Just play how I know how to play.
“Any opportunity you get in the NHL you want to make the most of it obviously, but you try not to put too much pressure or overthink it.”
Gaudreau went through a similar test he passed almost immediately.
Asked what his takeaway was from coaching Gaudreau, Sutter smiled.
“The improvement that he made,” said Sutter of the Blue Jackets’ prized signing in the summer.
“When I came three years ago the questions exactly from guys in this room was, ‘what’s wrong with Johnny Gaudreau?’ Remember?
“First of all, I was told he couldn’t check. Well, he was plus-64 last year.
“Last year his numbers more than doubled from his previous years combined.
“I enjoyed coaching Johnny Gaudreau. I saw him evolve into a 200-foot player.”
Pressure has mounted from fans and the media to give Phillips a chance, as an organization that has given rise to many notable mighty mites needs to see what it has in the pending unrestricted free agent.
Kevin Rooney was put on waivers Thursday for the purposes of sending him down (he cleared Friday), opening the door for a glimpse at Phillips.
His Wranglers linemate, Radim Zohorna, has also been summoned by the Flames, who may be a more enticing option for Sutter’s fourth line moving forward, as he’s six-foot-six.
Tough to say who Flames fans will pay more attention to tonight — Gaudreau or Phillips.
“The boys kind of give me crap about it sometimes,” chuckled Phillips, when asked if he’d heard all the noise made by fans hoping for him to be recalled.
“But it’s good. Canadian market. Everybody loves the Flames and wants them to do well.
“And I just want to help them.”
We’ll see Friday if a spot on the fourth line allows him to do that.