Blackhawks’ Isaak Phillips breaks down learning to play the right side as a left-handed defenseman

CHICAGO — Isaak Phillips just got a new couch at his place in Rockford and was starting to feel situated.

And then, he got a call the Blackhawks needed him in the NHL. Of course, it’s where he would rather be, but still …

“The hotel is definitely not ideal,” Phillips said, smiling. “I got my place, just kind of got settled in Rockford, you know, nice new couch, things like that. I’m like, ah, back to the hotel. But obviously, you can’t complain at all. It’s not bad at all. It’s good.”

Like all Blackhawks prospects, Phillips’ goal is to be allowed to move into a more permanent place in Chicago, which comes with being a full-time NHLer. In his fourth pro season, Phillips feels like he’s getting closer and closer to making that a reality.

Phillips’ latest NHL opportunity arrived when Jarred Tinordi went down with an injury and Nikita Zaitsev stepped away from the team due to a personal matter. Phillips was recalled from Rockford on Nov. 11 and was inserted into the lineup against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday.

Aside from the usual challenges of trying to adapt to the NHL level, Phillips was also asked Thursday to play the right side as a left-handed defenseman. It’s something he began doing in Rockford this season, but he hasn’t had a ton of reps at it. He’ll do whatever, though.

“If it can keep me in the lineup, it can keep me in the lineup,” Phillips said.

That’s kind of the reality of the Blackhawks defense right now. They have three young left-handed defensemen in Kevin Korchinski, Alex Vlasic and Wyatt Kaiser who are likely to remain on their strong sides. For Phillips, Nolan Allan and other left-handed defenseman prospects in the pipeline, their path to the NHL might be on their off side.

Phillips talked in depth Friday about what goes into playing the right side. For one, he thought getting comfortable receiving passes on his backhand and immediately skating with the puck in the neutral zone was an adjustment for him. He also knows he has to be smart about passing the puck to the middle of the ice off his backhand. He did that Thursday, and a play like this worked to the Blackhawks’ advantage:

“I think obviously a play to the middle is dangerous, but it’s oftentimes the right play because the forecheck’s coming down the middle on the first D and the wall on me, so then a bump to the middle is there,” Phillips said. “We just got to make sure the communication with the centerman is there. If the center’s there, I think that’s the right play. Sometimes you’re a little nervous to make it, but you have to make it.”

Another area he’s aware of that is different is retrieving pucks and knowing where he has potential outs. For example, there was this play on Thursday where he’s coming behind the net on the right to get to the puck, feels the forecheck pressure and moves the puck along the boards on his backhand and it ends up on the opposition’s stick.

Phillips is accustomed to making that play on the other side. It’s going to take time to understand where the plays are and be comfortable making them.

“I think it’s something you can work on,” Phillip said. “I just haven’t played the right. Even those skating movements, you’re used to going the other way. But once you look at it on video and see that guy’s open, you get the tendencies. I have the tendencies of playing on the left. You know who is open, but now on the right, you quick up and you look … that way and the guy is that way instead of just turning and seeing that side’s blocked off and chucking it nobody. You can just watch the video and see that side’s open, so the next time you make the play, it’s the right play.”

Phillips and the Blackhawks coaches went over video on Friday of Thursday’s game. They gave him positive feedback on his performance and have reiterated for him to simplify his game.

“Just reminding him before the game, just footwork and positioning,” Blackhawks coach Luke Richardson said. “Just to make sure you always give yourself an out as a defenseman. I thought he played well (Thursday) night, and I thought he played physical and he didn’t put himself in any trouble over-handling the puck. So he did a really good job with his positioning (Thursday) night and his puck decisions. So, just continue, simple, if you don’t notice a big, strong defensive defenseman other than clearing the crease, then that’s a good thing.”

The following is a clip of Phillips (No. 41) defending the Lightning’s rush and then holding his ground in the crease. Phillips has a good understanding of the Blackhawks’ defensive zone system and protects the front of the net well.

Phillips was also aggressive Thursday in pursuing the puck from blue line to blue line. Here, he steps up from the neutral zone to deter a rush:

Phillips was paired with Kaiser for most of Thursday’s game. The pairing had its ups and downs like most of the Blackhawks in the game, but it was noticeable how both defenders skated with speed and tried to close out on defenders. For example on this play, Phillips is holding a strong gap and is looking to kill the play before it gets to the defensive zone. Kaiser sees how Phillips is angling the puck carrier toward the boards and is able to jump in and force a turnover:

“I think the biggest thing for us being young D who can skate is our gaps,” Phillips said. “So staying up on them and not giving them that blue line to blue line to gain their speed. Stay right up on them and I can swing in, he can swing in and close the play quick and get it into the forwards’ hands is going to be the biggest thing for us. Just being able to skate well is just a bonus.”

On that play, Phillips got the puck back and was able to utilize his own skating to exit the zone and help the Blackhawks get their offense going. He did that a few times on Thursday. On this play, Vlasic leaves the puck for Phillips. He skates the puck up, gets it past the first layer of defense and that leads to a rush opportunity.

Richardson wants Phillips to do that. At the same time, it’s about Phillips being smart about when to do it.

“Guys like that, just don’t over-handle it, don’t put yourself in a bad position, just skate it and draw someone to you and move it to the forwards,” Richardson said. “Then you’re added now to the offensive rush as that fourth man and I think that’s difficult. (Victor) Hedman does it better than anyone in the league and Hedman’s a top defenseman. But Isaak should make sure he plays the same way as he did last game, very physical around the crease, simple moving the puck, and when he has a chance, use his explosive acceleration with his skating. You pick and choose those times and you make sure it’s when the other team’s vulnerable and not skating yourself into trouble.”

Phillips said he’s now actually looking forward to playing the right side again and getting even more comfortable with it. Again, whatever to stay in the NHL.

Overall, Phillips has been pleased with his own development. He joined the IceHogs during the 2020-21 season right after being drafted because the OHL wasn’t playing due to COVID. He only turned 22 in September and already has 150-plus AHL games and 20-plus NHL games under his belt. He’s optimistic he’ll get the chance to have a permanent place in Chicago in time.

“I’m not rushed,” Phillips said. “I think I’ve played almost 160 games in the minors. It’s all a process. I think it’s only going to help in the end. There’s no rush for a young D to get into the league. I think I’m ready, and it’s just game by game, it’s just showing what I can do.”

(Photo: Chase Agnello-Dean / NHLI via Getty Images)

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