Sixty seconds after the start of free agency, Matthew Phillips was on the phone.
On the other line was Spencer Carbery, the Washington Capitals new head coach, who was tasked with courting the 25-year-old winger from the start of the coach’s first NHL free agency.
“That was super encouraging,” Phillips told Washington Hockey Now. “That was obviously a good sign, and it made me feel wanted for sure. They were interested. They like my game and they see potential in what I can do, so that’s kind of all you’re asking for when you end up in free agency.”
After two seasons as one of the AHL’s top point-producing forwards, Phillips was a rookie to the free agent market. All he had known was the Calgary Flames after the team drafted him in 2016, but his consistent success at a step just below the NHL stirred up plenty of interest in his services around the league.
A Calgary native, Phillips received a two-year contract offer from the Flames, who had undergone a regime change in both the front office and behind the bench. Other teams made their interest known, but Phillips ultimately agreed to a one-year, one-way contract with the Capitals on the second day of free agency.
“I just felt it was time for me to explore a new opportunity,” Phillips said. “Washington seemed like a really good fit for me and something that I was excited about. It’s definitely not easy — all my friends and family are here in the city and I loved playing in Calgary all season — but I still think it’s important for me to go out after what’s best for me and this opportunity is very exciting.”
Phillips led the AHL’s Calgary Wranglers with 76 points last season, as well as 68 points the year prior with the AHL’s Stockton Heat — both stints under the guidance of then-head coach Mitch Love, now an assistant coach on Carbery’s staff in Washington.
“He’s a good person and he’s very honest,” Phillips said of Love. “He definitely told me his thoughts about Washington and the values that the organization has and what he thought I might enjoy about it, so that carried weight for sure … it helps to hear things from somebody you trust.”
Phillips joins a Capitals team that appears somewhat set on the wing, but could provide a strong opportunity to receive NHL minutes — something that Phillips, who has played in three NHL games across five professional seasons, has yet to obtain.
From last season, winger Conor Sheary departed via free agency, while 34-year-old Carl Hagelin doesn’t appear to be in the team’s plans this winter. Sonny Milano and Nicolas Aube-Kubel, from the team’s bottom lines, will return, while Aliaksei Protas can be “penciled in” to the team’s roster, according to general manager Brian MacLellan.
At 5-foot-8, Phillips is an outlier. He’d be the shortest player on the team by three inches if he cracks the roster, and would add somebody who is forced to play the game in a way different than most others.
Still, his production in the AHL is undeniable. And while Phillips isn’t guaranteed a spot on the Capitals’ opening night roster, his offensive prowess — 67 goals and 77 assists over the past two AHL seasons — and other skills absolutely have him in play for an opportunity.
“For me, I’m focused on just coming into camp and playing well,” Phillips said. “Definitely not going to get ahead of myself, I’m far from on any NHL roster yet and I’m just focused on getting better this summer and trying to earn a spot.”
Capitals rookie camp will run from Sept. 16-19 before training camp opens on Sept. 20. The team’s first preseason game is scheduled for Sept. 24.