The Flames, who took hometown Calgary product Matthew Phillips in the sixth round of the 2016 NHL draft, returned him to junior with the Royals on Tuesday.
Phillips notched 50 goals for Victoria last season but the Flames want him to do more than score this year. They also want him to lead.
“Their message was I’m going to be a 19- year-old and a go-to guy, and for me to embrace that leadership role, and take advantage of it and make the most of this season,” said Phillips.
The water-bug quick winger, who had one assist in three exhibition games with the Flames rookie team, remains unsigned by Calgary.
“I felt stronger and faster and a lot more comfortable in the process this year and showed improvement from last year,” said Phillips, in his self-assessment of his Flames training camp experience this month.
A big reason was a stepped-up off-season regimen because of Phillips’ inclusion in the Canadian team summer selection camp for the 2018 world junior championship, which included exhibition games against Finland, Sweden and the U.S. in Michigan.
“It helped being part of the world junior camp over the summer. . . . I was holding my own better in Calgary camp [because of it],” said Phillips.
Phillips always knew he would be returned to Victoria this season. Nineteen-year-olds cannot be assigned to minor pro. They must play in the NHL or be returned to their junior team. At five-foot-six, there was little chance of anything but a return to the Royals in the cards for Phillips in 2017-18, whether he was signed by the Flames or not.
“It’s going to be great to be back in Victoria, and I’m really looking forward to the season starting,” he said, by phone in Calgary.
That leaves only forward Tyler Soy with the Anaheim Ducks and defenceman Chaz Reddekopp with the Los Angeles Kings among Royals players remaining in pro camps. Both are 20 and part of the projected trio of Royals allowable over-agers, which includes forward Regan Nagy.
Eighteen-year-old defenceman Scott Walford, a third-round selection this year of the Montreal Canadiens, was returned to Victoria last week.
Royals GM Cameron Hope has pegged Soy’s return at “50-50.”
“We should know more by the end of the week,” said Hope.
Soy is not signed by the Ducks but Reddekopp has been inked by the Kings, which greatly changes the equation for the blue-liner.
“I don’t expect to see Chaz back anytime soon,” said Hope.
All WHL teams are in similar straits with their drafted players.
“Your depth gets tested early this time of year,” added Hope.
“Veterans have to take on a greater share of the load and your young guys get an early opportunity to show what they can do.”