During the first period of last Friday’s prospect showcase game against the Minnesota Wild, Isaak Phillips came down and sat in the media seats next to us. Being one of the more experienced guys in that camp with NHL and AHL experience, he didn’t dress for the game. But make no mistake: Phillips isn’t here for a social visit.
The 2020 fifth-rounder is consistently the first skater on the ice for practice and the last one off. A few times, he’s still been on the ice when the media came out of the dressing room after speaking with other players.
This is a huge year for Phillips. He is part of a growing group of defensemen who spent most of last year in Rockford but also got some valuable NHL experience. That experience is something general manager Kyle Davidson has stressed will be critical for the player and organizational development moving forward.
Davidson and his staff have made it clear that they’re looking for speed, athleticism, and compete from their youngsters. Phillips has plenty of skating ability and athleticism. Anders Sorenson said as much last weekend, and he coached him in Rockford for much of last season after Derek King was elevated to Chicago’s bench in November.
“At the end of the day, he’s going to be a really good defender,” Sorensen said. “He defends first. He has some abilities to jump into the play [on the offensive side], but he’s going to be valued in how he defends. Because of his athleticism and skating ability, he’s going to be able to defend the fast skaters in the NHL. So, I think just keep honing those skills.”
While Sorensen sees Phillips being a defend-first defenseman for the Blackhawks long-term, he can get into the mix on offense thanks to his aforementioned skill set. scored 10 goals and logged 15 helpers in 15 games with the IceHogs last season.
I asked Sorensen how he would describe his performance at last week’s event. Sorensen, who’s a man of few words when it comes to his evaluation of players with reporters, actually had some specific compliments to pay Phillips.
“He looks really good; he’s been impressive,” Sorensen said. “I think he’s come a long way. I’ve said this before; his athleticism has been one of his strengths as a player. He’s a little more composed now than when he came in. I think some of his habits have improved. Just learning how to play against pro guys. Learning how to understand who they’re on the ice with and stuff like that, but he’s come a long way.”
Phillips says that he’s focused on the task at hand rather than getting ahead of himself, but he knows that there is a chance for a young defenseman like himself to earn an NHL roster spot this season, and he believes that he’s in the perfect place for a player in his shoes.
“Excited,” Phillips said. “This is exactly where you’d want to be as a young guy. As a young defenseman, there’s a lot of competition, but it’s healthy competition. I think we all wouldn’t change it for anything. I’m just going to go and try to play my game, not try to do anything special. Move the puck, be efficient, defend hard, and then use my skating ability to get in [offensively] when I can and show what I can do. Control what you can control.”
Phillips went straight from the draft to Rockford during the pandemic season, and Phillips says that he began working with Brian Campbell when he arrived in Rockford, and the two have formed a relationship that features daily communication since then.
“Yeah, Soupie has been around since the COVID year in Rockford,” Phillips said. He would come out to like almost every practice, so it’s been like a year and a half now with Soupie, and he’s been really good. I remember that first year, it was only like three months, but I talked to him every day. I would like ask him a question every day about what he thinks about this or that.
He’s been really big for my development, and I think he likes me as a player, but I still have a lot to go and a lot to improve on. But he sends me clips all the time and even clips of other d-men in the NHL to look at what they’re doing and stuff like that. He’s been huge for my game.”
Phillips credits Campbell with a large role in his development during his time in the Blackhawks organization, and development there has been. Phillips is a serious contender to break camp with the NHL team, with Jake McCabe sidelined post-surgery and Ian Mitchell set to miss all of training camp and then some.
As far as camp goes, Phillips says that the first two days of practice have been great, and he paid a high compliment to rookie head coach Luke Richardson’s plan of attack in installing his new systems this week.
“It’s been good, we’ve been learning a lot,” Phillips said. “It hasn’t been like an absolute bag skate all the time, but I think it’s been really productive, and we’ve been learning a lot. I think we’re going to be really ready going into the preseason games, we’re all going to be on the same page. A little bit slower, a lot more learning, like they’re not, if you screw up a drill, fucking slamming their stick and yelling at you, but they’re teaching you, which I really like.”
I asked Phillips what the tone and message from the coaching staff has been through two days, and Phillips said that everyone is going to have an opportunity to compete for a role on the team.
“Everyone’s going to have an opportunity, you’re going to play all situations. They just want you to learn, develop, and grow. It’s been nice. It’s been a happy good mood, and everyone’s ready to work.”