On Isaak Phillips, and the pack of blue-line prospects knocking on the door of the NHL
Chicago's stockpiled several blue-line prospects over the years and Phillips is one who's starting to emerge.
Tell me if you've heard this story before: the Blackhawks haven't drafted and developed defenseman since Niklas Hjalmarsson, selected way back in 2005.
Before this season, Chicago hadn't even had a defensive prospect play a full regular season’s worth of games (82) with the team. Ian Mitchell finally hit that mark, but he now seems to be on the outs with the Blackhawks organization.
It's not without trying, though. Since 2017 – the last year the Blackhawks were relevant in the postseason – they have selected defensemen with nearly half of their draft picks (19 of 50), including eight of their 15 first or second-round picks and four of their six top picks. They've also picked up several young defensemen over the years via trade in that span. Essentially, the Blackhawks have taken a quality and quantity method to defenseman acquisition over the last several years, but we still haven't seen any results – at least not yet.
But we've made it to the point where these kids are impacting or will impact the NHL soon, so our review of the last Blackhawks season starts with one of the six rookie hopefuls who played in the NHL this season: Isaak Phillips.
Phillips has been rising up the Blackhawks prospect rankings for years thanks to his advancement and performance in Rockford, and he was finally rewarded with an extended look in the NHL. He played the second most games in Chicago this season among rookies with 16, averaging 15:28 of ice time in those games. Phillips played in two stints: his first 11 games were between mid-December and mid-January, then he rejoined the Blackhawks for another five games at the end of February. He played predominantly at 5-on-5, though he did play more on the penalty kill towards the end of his NHL stints, ending at 54 seconds on average per game.
On offense really was the area where Phillips mostly obviously shined while in the NHL, mostly because he was placed in more offensively skewed situations while with the Blackhawks. He finished the season with one goal and four assists – which is decent enough for his playing time – but his 1.3 points per 60 rate at 5-on-5 indicated that he could likely produce even more if Phillips received more ice time. That points-per-60 rate is skewed somewhat due to the smaller sample and his deployment, it was still impressive enough to be the best among Blackhawks defensemen this season. Another impressive stat for Phillips is that he contributed to 55.56 of the goals he was on the ice for at 5-on-5 – one of only three defensemen to hit above the halfway mark on the Blackhawks.
Like most defensemen, most of Phillips' points came from assists, but he ultimately had the best primaryt assist rate on the blue line (0.52 per 60). He became quite the playmaker in Rockford, and it's seemed like that could translate well to the NHL: especially his break-out passing. The Blackhawks arguably haven't had a defensemen since Brent Seabrook with elite abilities in making long transition passes, but Phillips has been consistently good at springing linemates with passes at every level where he's played. During his first call-up with the Blackhawks, head coach Luke Richardson commented on how Phillips "looked real comfortable" with his execution of moving the puck quickly and efficiently.
Here is an example of a beautiful breakout pass from Phillips this season that resulted in a goal:
Phillips also showed flashes of his shooting capabilities, especially towards the end of the first batch of games. Not only was he willing to shoot a decent bit (9.34 per 60, fourth among 14 defensemen), he had a solid ability to get those shots through on goal (3.89 shots per 60, fourth) and create rebounds (0.78 per 60, fifth). Phillips often jumped into plays, especially on rushes, and ended up with 1.3 high danger chances per 60 and 0.26 rush attempts per 60, second and first on the blue line, respectively.
As mentioned previously, skating is one of – if not the – top skill set of Phillips. He's got a powerful stride, quick activation, and can maneuver in tight spaces or around opposing players very effectively. More than once, he showed he can excel in transition, but no play showcased that more than on his first NHL goal, when Phillips went end-to-end. He started the play by out-skating a Kraken forechecker out of the defensive zone, then passed to Jason Dickinson for the zone entry and moved into the slot before finishing with a backhand.
The game above against Seattle on Jan. 14 was arguably his best of the season, a point in which Phillips looked extremely comfortable against NHL competition.
On the other side of the rink, Phillips has above average on-ice awareness defensively, but it was harder to quantify those plays since his tracked sample from Corey Sznajder's data is currently too small. However, he had several instances when his smart stick broke up plays both in zone and near the blue line. Phillips can be physical – his 6.74 hits per 60 was fifth on the team – but he often relies on his reach and quick hands even on defense. As a result, he had the best takeaway rate (2.85 per 60) on defense. His ability to track plays against and make necessary adjustments when needed is also key to his defensive game.
Phillips' first point in the NHL was actually a good read to prevent a zone-exit against with an active stick – an almost perfect example of his style of defensive strengths in a single play:
Ultimately, a sample of just 16 NHL games from this season isn't enough to get a full evaluation of a player, but we saw hints at the type of defenseman Phillips could be in the future. At 6-foot-3, he has a good combination of size, skating ability, and general athleticism which overall lends itself to a future in the NHL, and Phillips is arguably the best two-way defensive prospect in the system with a solid base projection of a second-pairing defenseman. At this point, Phillips has a strong enough foundation that his next step is just getting as much playing time in the NHL to hone his skillset – something we'll hopefully see next season with the Blackhawks.