Spiller provides strength for struggling Grizzlies

By Ryan Garner

Exceeding expectations is becoming commonplace for Matthew Spiller. The 22-year-old defensive prospect has seen his stock rise dramatically in the past couple seasons, thanks to an intimidating package of size and skill. Spiller stands 6’5, 230 pounds, and uses every inch of that imposing frame to inflict punishment on opposing forwards.

Matthew Spiller was born in Daysland, Alberta, a small town where youngsters spend the majority of time growing up on farmers’ fields and hockey rinks. He joined the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League at the age of 16, and made an immediate impact on the hockey club. Playing under Seattle head coach Dean Chynoweth, the talented youngster developed into one of the leaders along the Thunderbirds blue line.

Spiller received a huge vote of confidence at the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. The mammoth defenseman was expecting to have his name called late in the second round. Instead, the Phoenix Coyotes took a gamble on Spiller, selecting him early in the second round, 31st overall.

“I knew Phoenix was pretty interested and I had three interviews (with them) before the draft. I knew they picked 31st and they also had a pick at 45 so I knew if I wasn’t drafted by then they were going to take me, and they jumped on me.”

The Coyotes gamble looked promising as Spiller continued his fine play for Seattle in the 2001-02 season, improving on his point totals by 20 points over the previous year. He also won the hardest shot competition at the CHL’s 2002 All-Star Classic with a 101.1 mph blast. But the improvement didn’t end there. Spiller showcased stellar play at both ends of the ice for the Thunderbirds in 2002-03, finishing the season with a league-leading plus/minus of +50 and cementing his reputation as a reliable defensive presence. He attributes most of his junior success to Seattle’s coaching staff.

“I had good coaches in Seattle [Chynoweth and assistant coach Rob Sumner]. They both really helped me out through my four years there, taught me the basic skills, play simple, be physical, and it paid off.”

Spiller signed a multi-year contract with Phoenix on June 1, 2003. Later on, in September of 2003, he received an invitation to the Coyotes training camp. Attending his first pro camp, the big rearguard looked impressive and his strong play earned him a spot on the Phoenix Coyotes opening day roster.

“Going into camp I just wanted to play my game, play simple and move the puck well. Not do anything fancy but just play defense first. I think I did well and obviously they noticed.”

Spiller proved that he was capable of handling the rigors of NHL play, appearing in 51 games for the Phoenix Coyotes during the 2003-04 season. Teamed with veteran Cale Hulse for much of the year, the rookie defenseman gained valuable playing experience and his confidence improved with every game.

“A lot of the Coyotes younger defensemen really helped me out, Paul Mara, David Tanabe, and Ossi Vaananen. Cale Hulse too, those guys really helped me out when I was just coming in because I was pretty overwhelmed and pretty excited at the same time.”

Spiller was slated to begin the 2004-05 season with Phoenix but found himself suiting up for the Utah Grizzlies of the American Hockey League because of the NHL work stoppage. He knew playing for the Grizzlies would give him a good opportunity to play regularly and develop his skills.

“I just wanted to come in with a positive attitude. I knew we had a young team and had some talent. I just wanted to come and play my game like I did last year in Phoenix.”

The huge defenseman patterns his game after Edmonton Oilers captain Jason Smith, a rugged defenseman that shows up for every game. Spiller also gives a solid effort each nighy as the backbone of Utah’s defensive corps, and he’s usually the first one Grizzlies head coach Pat Conacher calls for in key situations. Spiller’s slapshot that helps him to be an effective contributor on the power play and his rugged physical play makes him very tough to beat one-on-one.

“When I’m on my game I just try to play physical as much as I can and play the puck simple, nothing fancy, and try not to give up any turnovers. I always try to play solid in my own end.”

Utah has struggled this season and they currently find themselves in the basement of the AHL, with a record of 21-48-2-5 in 76 games. Every member of the Grizzlies has struggled this season but Spiller has been the club’s most reliable defenseman for much of the year. In 75 games, the Alberta native has 11 points and 154 penalty minutes, with a plus/minus of -22. Spiller notes injuries to leaders such as Jeff Taffe, Rick Berry, and Sheldon Keefe as one of the primary reasons for the Grizzlies’ demise.

“We had a good team coming into the camp; we just got off to a rough start. I think only won one game in our first nine. After that maybe guys lost confidence or tried to be too fancy. Then we started getting injuries after that; we’ve had about four or five key guys out and that really set us back.”

Spiller is eager to put this season behind him and he’s looking forward to the day he can continue his NHL career. The talented rearguard also knows that he has some areas to improve on if he wants to gain a permanent roster spot with the Coyotes.

“I just need to work on keeping things simple, getting quicker feet, and always getting my shots on net. Consistency is one of the main things, just being prepared to play ever game.”

Combining physical play and reliable defensive coverage, he has already drawn comparisons to big, physical rearguards like Chris Therien and Robyn Regehr. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Matthew Spiller will be given every opportunity to succeed in the Phoenix Coyotes system.

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