Nov 19, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Buffalo Sabres left wing Jeff Skinner (53) is checked by Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Isaak Phillips (41) during the third period at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports
The Chicago Blackhawks started the season with three essentially rookie defensemen. Wyatt Kaiser and Alex Vlasic had a combined 30 games of NHL experience between them, and Kevin Korchinski had yet to make his league debut. At least head coach Luke Richardson had some veteran safety nets in Seth Jones, Connor Murphy, and a rotation of Jarred Tinordi and Nikita Zaitsev.
However, when Tinordi landed on IR and Zaitsev took a personal leave from the team (he has since returned), the Blackhawks recalled Isaak Phillips from the Rockford IceHogs. Phillips has 26 NHL games under his belt, with six coming in recent weeks. Pairing him and Kaiser together is not ideal, but they are making the best out of it.
“It’s fun to play together,” Phillips said after Saturday’s practice. “We can both skate. When we’re playing at our best, we’re both moving together. We’re both learning and having fun with it.”
The young duo has had some ups and downs. They are both mobile defenders, with Kaiser being the faster, smother skater and Phillips bringing the physical play. Both can add to the offensive attack, but neither have yet to establish themselves at that end of the ice.
“Their skating ability is great, and that’s what we need out of them,” said Richardson. “And part of that is getting up for a good gap. That’s the one place where they were just a little bit lacking last night (against the Toronto Maple Leafs), but they’ve been really good as of late.
“I like the way Kaiser is shooting the puck harder and more often, and I think that’ll become contagious. We worked on it again at the end of practice today, and that’s something we want to see from our D, especially the young guys. Feel confident to shoot that puck.”
Against the Maple Leafs on Friday, Phillips and Kaiser were on the ice for the first and third Toronto goals.
“On the first goal, I was a little hesitant to slide over, and then he was hesitant, and then that creates everyone to get caught in committal,” Phillips admitted.
Richardson said that Phillips and Kaiser didn’t slide over fast enough on the third goal, which gave Ryan Reaves a wide-open look from the slot.
You’d expect to see these types of plays from a pairing of rookie defensemen. They are going to make mistakes. The hope is that they learn from them and don’t repeat the same mistakes repeatedly.
Phillips is not lacking any confidence, despite not being able to cement his place on the NHL roster.
“Coming into camp, I came in with the same confidence I have now,” he said. “I feel that I’m ready to be here. This is the place I’m growing as a player. The confidence is there for me.”
He and Kaiser have played six games together this season and have 57:17 of ice time at 5v5. The only player Kaiser has more 5v5 time with this season is Tinordi. Phillips and Kaiser have a 39.81 Corsi for percentage (CF%), with just 27.3% of their shifts starting in the offensive zone. In nine games and 73:33 of 5v5 ice time, Kaiser and Tinordi have a 36.42 CF%, with 30% of their shifts starting in the offensive zone. So, it appears that Kaiser is slightly better with another rookie next to him than one of his veteran “safety nets.”
The Blackhawks will have an interesting decision when Tinordi comes off the injured list. General manager Kyle Davidson said on Saturday that Tinordi is skating on his own but has yet to join his teammates.
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