Second City Hockey’s 2022-23 preseason Blackhawks Top 25 Under 25 series ranks the organization’s top 25 players under the age of 25 by Oct. 1, 2022. The rankings are determined by a composite score from all four SCH writers. Each participant used their own metric of current ability and production against future projection to rank each player. All four ballots will be released after the series is completed.
Isaak Phillips, now two seasons into his professional career, was easily the most improved defenseman on the IceHogs’ roster from the 2021 season to the 2021-22 season. Not only did he see an explosion in production — going from nine points in 27 games to 25 in 64 — Phillips also played in his first games with the Chicago Blackhawks and left fans, if anything, wanting for more games for him.
Phillips has joined a pipeline filled with smaller, more nimble defensemen. There’s a reason that Stan Bowman drafted for size, particularly on the blue line, in his final years as GM — although it’s debatable whether that idea was a good one. But Phillips has quickly joined the more offensive defensemen category, something he was not the most known for in his junior years.
Phillips can shoot the puck, as he proved by scoring 10 goals last season, trailing only Ian Mitchell for the team lead among IceHogs defensemen. But he’s becoming more well known for his underrated ability to pass the puck and his work in the transition game, in terms of both shutting down opposing ones and beginning ones for his team in the opposite direction. At 6-3, Phillips has a good combination of size and skating ability, he just never had the numbers to warrant a higher draft pick.
Those numbers are beginning to show up, however. Scoring 25 points in a sophomore professional season — which felt more like Phillips’ actual rookie season in regularly scheduled programming — is nothing to sneeze at.
Phillips currently looks like he can turn into a middle-pairing defenseman, and if the Blackhawks have been wanting for anything over the past few years, it’s been defensive depth. Having someone like Phillips who could provide that in the long-term is an excellent pickup, especially for a fifth-round pick.
In a limited sample size of NHL games, Phillips also had quality possession numbers, including a 54.76 percent share of shot attempts and a 57.79 percent share of expected goals. On a team that was underwater in terms of possession, it feels like Chicago could have done a whole lot worse than leaving Phillips on the third pairing for most of the season and simply not using Erik Gustafsson.
Phillips joins Alex Vlasic as the high-potential, larger defensemen in the Blackhawks’ system. There’s a reason both already rank on this list well ahead of higher-drafted prospects like Nicolas Beaudin, and that’s because both have already showcased an ability to grow. While Vlasic has proven to be more consistent so far, Phillips, with another season of growth like the one he had between 2021 and 2022, could easily be slotted in for a roster spot in 2023-24.
During Phillips last OHL season, he scored just 26 points (9 G, 17 A) in 63 games. In the AHL, a more difficult league with rosters consisting of fully grown men, Phillips is already nearly at that number in one category and beating it in another.
Some experts thought the Phillips pick was a steal when it was made in the 2020 draft. That’s turning out to be an accurate prediction already.
Like Jalen Luypen, the previous entry on this list, Phillips is showing quite the return for the investment. Getting players deep into drafts to turn into real players is what good teams do and Cup-winning teams do consistently. Phillips could be one of the larger steps towards that, and will still be in his prime years when the Blackhawks are supposed to be good again.
For a team that hasn’t developed a consistent NHL defenseman in-house since Niklas Hjalmarsson, the Blackhawks could do a lot worse than sinking everything into making sure Phillips turns into one.
Phillips will return to the IceHogs and look to have a bigger role with the team this year, hopefully getting more power-play time. Despite his overall production, none of Phillips’ points came on the man advantage. Phillips may get some time with the Blackhawks during periods of multiple injuries, but his true NHL rookie season should likely come in 2023-24.