Impressive Isaak Phillips Talks Swagger, Development and Leadership in Rockford
As we look to the future of the Blackhawks in the early stages of the current rebuild, I have the 2020 draft class circled as the first significantly impactful group of prospects to join the organization. Thus far, five of the eight players selected in that class have signed entry-level contracts with the Blackhawks, a group highlighted by forward Lukas Reichel. But no prospect from that draft has seen his stock skyrocket quite like defenseman Isaak Phillips.
Chicago selected Phillips out of Sudbury in the OHL in the fifth round (No. 141 overall) in 2020. Partly because of the pandemic, the Blackhawks signed him quickly and sent him to Rockford to gain experience.
We have now seen Phillips in the NHL in each of the last two seasons. He took on a more significant role last year and was an important player for the IceHogs this year, being elevated to an assistant captain after the trade deadline. He has the size (6-3, 205) that teams covet, but he also moves the puck well, can skate and plays a physical game.
I had the opportunity to speak with Phillips earlier this week before the IceHogs begin their second-round playoff series against Texas on Friday night.
Phillips appeared in 16 games with the Blackhawks this season, scoring his first career NHL goal and picking up four assists along the way. He was one of a handful of players from Rockford who were promoted, including Reichel’s longest run in the NHL yet. He said the confidence players bring back to the AHL after getting a taste of the bright lights of the NHL is undeniable.
“I think for personal confidence… when you come down you kind of want to prove that you’re almost not too good for this league, you know what I mean? But just that almost you are and you want to show that next year you want to be in the NHL. And when you slot in so many guys that got that taste and now have that fire in their belly, and then you put it together in a team environment, good things can happen.”
“It’s not like you’re coming in here thinking you’re the best thing ever, but you definitely come down with a little bit of swagger and you come down with that confidence that I’m winning this battle no matter what. And I think that seeps into my game for sure. Every battle that I go in, every quarter that I go in, I know I’m big enough and strong enough to win that puck. So when I don’t win it, I take that very personal and it eats at me if I lose a battle.”
With the Blackhawks entering a rebuild at the start of this year and overhauling pretty much everything in the organization, from the front office to the coaching staffs and structure of operations between Rockford and Chicago, it’s been interesting to speak with prospects who are on their way up about their perspective on the process. Phillips is embracing the opportunity and is excited to see how he’s progressing within the organization.
And the organization is excited about his progress as well. When general manager Kyle Davidson spoke to the media to close out the regular season, he talked about the youth movement next year and “infusing some more of the young talent” on the NHL roster. One of the players positioned to make the jump next year is clearly Phillips; Davidson mentioned one of the reasons they brought back Jarred Tinordi was his leadership with young guys like Phillips, Alex Vlasic and Wyatt Kaiser.
Whenever you have young players come up, mistakes are going to happen. Not many fans remember the growing pains of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook because, frankly, there were 5,000 people in the stands every night and the games weren’t on television in Chicago. But now with the post-dynasty audience and games available on multiple platforms, there’s more attention given to the oops moments we see on the ice. Phillips said the organization has been supportive of learning from and moving past those moments. But his perspective on getting better is exactly what you’d hope to hear from a young player.
“[Mistakes are] something that you’re not going to hide from,” he said. “I think the next day. I know, especially up top, I made some mistakes and the next day I watched a video with Kevin Dean and he’d say, ‘you’re doing it the right way, you’re trying.’ You don’t want to discourage a player from making a play or anything, but we’re just going to watch it back, acknowledge it, and then go in the next game and you don’t let it happen again. And if it’s something that starts to snowball, then I think it’s, or you start to address a problem maybe more seriously, but it’s just watching a lot of video and then trying to implement it in the next game. And that’s something that I take pride in, as being a very coachable player. So when they tell me something or show me something they want me to do, it’s really something that I try to show right there in that next game that I’m learning.”
Phillips said his physicality is one of the elements of his game that’s worked on the most since turning pro. Finishing checks and making life hell for opposing forwards is something he takes pride in, and you could see that in the NHL this season as he got more comfortable. But his offense has also improved; you can see his ability in the video above of his first career goal.
He also talked about being more of a leader in Rockford this season, his third campaign with the IceHogs. That’s something you’ve read a lot from me over the past year as we discuss the players who will make up the next generation of Blackhawks. Chicago has drafted so many players who have been captains of junior teams or worn a letter with their college programs that it’s clearly something the front office is prioritizing. And Phillips has been a solid leader for Rockford this season, playing heavy minutes and contributing in all situations.
And leadership is at the top of his personal goals for right now in the AHL playoffs and into the future.
“For me right now, my biggest goal is to just be a leader for our team and help push our team in the next coming rounds in Rockford in these playoffs,” he said. “I just want to be a factor that it’s helping win these games and I think we’re good enough to win two or three more series and go all the way. So I think I just want to play a huge role and just show that I can really play that playoff style and be a performer when it really counts. And then for next year, my goal is to be a full-time NHL player. I think I’m ready. And going into camp [this fall], there’s nowhere else where I want to be other than in that starting lineup come the end of camp.”
If the Blackhawks are going to build around players like Isaak Phillips, sign me up. Everything about him has been impressive from Day One, and he continues to grow on and off the ice.
In closing, I asked Phillips a few fun, quick-hitter questions.
- Best Dressed Guy in Rockford: “I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I’d like to say myself. But if I had to say another guy, let me think. I don’t know. I think Vlas, Vlas has some good suits as well. He’s, being 6-6, he got to get a couple custom ones.”
- Favorite Piece of Clothing: “I wouldn’t say I’m too emotionally attached to anything, but I just bought a new pair of Jordan 1’s actually, white and green. That’s probably my favorite thing right now.”
- Teammate He’d Like to Take Shoe Shopping: “Oh man, you making me throw some guys under the bus. Well, I don’t know. I think Brett Seney, I could take him out and show him a couple new pairs of kicks for sure.”
- Funniest Teammates in Rockford: “We had a couple. The two funniest guys I probably played with were Adam Clendening and Carson Gicewicz, and they both got traded just before the deadline here in Rockford. But those guys were definitely always heard in the room and always getting some laughs.”
- Best Road City for Food in the AHL: “I’m pretty excited when we go to Texas, it’ll be fun going to Austin. You stay in a nice area there. There’s lots of good restaurants around solids. Either Austin or Grand Rapids actually has a couple of solid restaurants that we always go to when we stay there as well.”
- Best & Worst Barn to Play In: “I enjoy playing in front of our fans. I think the best, you know, get to the BMO on a Friday or Saturday and it gets pretty loud in there. And I love playing at home, so I would definitely say I love playing at our rink. And then I hate playing at the Allstate, not a fan of those fans there, but I love when you see some Rockford jerseys in the crowd there.”