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The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything and altered lives around the globe. It changed the way we interact, the way we do our jobs, and the way we protect ourselves in our daily routines. On a smaller scale, the pandemic changed Isaak Phillips’ entire career trajectory.
After being drafted in the fifth round (141st overall) of the 2020 draft, the young defenseman was set to return to the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and begin a third season with the Sudbury Wolves. Then the OHL postponed the start of their season, and Phillips was left without a team. The Canadian Hockey League (CHL) temporarily waived its age restriction agreement with the American Hockey League (AHL), which allowed the 19-year-old blueliner to play with the Rockford IceHogs. Typically, players from CHL teams under the age of 20 are not allowed to play in the AHL.
Phillips never returned to Sudbury because he was so impressive that the Chicago Blackhawks signed him to an entry-level contract just a few weeks into the AHL season. He has been a professional ever since and even played four NHL games during the 2021-22 season. During his second year in the organization, Phillips scored 10 goals and 25 points in 64 AHL games. Prior to his call-up on Monday, he led all IceHogs defensemen with three goals and 17 points. He is one assist shy of tying his AHL-career high. His plus-17 rating is the best among all AHL skaters.
At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, Phillips brings some size to the Blackhawks’ blue line. He has good mobility and can get the puck up the ice quickly. He is not afraid to use his size to his advantage and can play physically when the situation calls for it. Phillips is sound positionally and can chip in offensively as well.
“I just focus on the D-zone every shift,” Phillips said after Tuesday’s practice. “The coaches want me breaking out pucks. That’s my main job. Just get it into the forwards’ hands as quickly as possible and help out in transition.”
Phillips stressed that the confidence he has gained playing well in Rockford has helped him get back to Chicago.
“I’m not reinventing the wheel or anything,” he said. “I’m confident. I’ve been working on my puck play at the blue line. I’m just moving it quick, and things seem to be going my way.”
Phillips spent Tuesday morning paired with Connor Murphy, who is familiar with from the last two training camps. Head coach Luke Richards wants him to play the type of hockey that got him here, a simple and physical game.
“Have an edge around our crease. You have to make people think twice before they go around our net. Maybe they skate gingerly or come in with a long stick. He’s a big guy and an athlete. We’re not asking him to be a wrecking ball out there. We want him to play hockey and use his skating and skills. If he can get off to a good start here, it’s going help him become and regular NHL player, and that’s good for everybody.”
The 21-year-old defender knows what makes him an effective player, and he will focus on playing that way against the Nashville Predators.
“My skating and my size,” he listed as his most prominent attributes. “I’ve been working on my physicality. I’ve been coming into my own this year. I’m confident in my ability in the corner. I go into a battle thinking I can win it. It’s been huge for me.
“Getting in front of the net and protecting the goalie. Pushing their players out and being assertive. You don’t have to be a fighter out there, but make sure the forwards on the other team know who they are playing against.”
Phillips’ path to the NHL has been unusual as it was jumpstarted due to a pandemic. However, allowing prospects to develop and mature over multiple seasons in the AHL is something Blackhawks fans will need to get used to. The next few seasons are all about patience and letting the talent show you they are ready for the NHL.
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