Blackhawks prospect Isaak Phillips brings increased confidence, grit into juicy NHL opportunity

With Jarred Tinordi out “for a while” recovering from facial surgery, Phillips — one of the best defensemen in the AHL this season — will take Tinordi’s spot on the Hawks’ second pairing Wednesday. It’s a chance for the 21-year-old to prove his NHL readiness.

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Isaak Phillips battles for the puck.

Isaak Phillips’ (left) strong preseason play with the Blackhawks powered his excellent start to the AHL season.

AP Photo/Colin E. Braley

Blackhawks prospect Isaak Phillips is a very nice guy.

Arguably too nice, Hawks coach Luke Richardson thinks. When the Hawks sent Phillips to Rockford at the end of training camp — despite his solid performance — Richardson asked him to add more grit to his game.

“[He can work on] being a little bit harder, a little bit meaner,” Richardson said Oct. 4. “Not stupid penalties, not cross-checking people in the head or stuff like that, but more playing hard against the No. 1 players on the other team. Let them know, ‘Oh, I don’t want to play against this guy tonight. It’s going to be a hard night, and I’m going to feel it.’ ’’

Phillips, 21, is back on the Hawks’ roster for the first time since camp, riding the momentum of 25 fantastic AHL games to start his third professional season. And he believes he has added that edge.

“I’m really working on my physicality,” Phillips said Tuesday. “I’m really coming into my own this year and [feeling] confident in my ability in the corners. I go into a battle thinking I can win it.

“[And] in front of the net, [I’m] protecting our goalie, pushing their players out, being firm and assertive. You don’t have to be a fighter out there, but use your size and make sure the forwards on the other team know who they’re playing against.”

The 6-3, 205-pound Ontario native — despite being nearly two years younger than the Hawks’ second-youngest player, forward Philipp Kurashev — suddenly sees a juicy opportunity to prove he’s ready to be a full-time NHL defenseman.

Jarred Tinordi, who took a wicked shot to the mouth Sunday, underwent surgery Monday to “fix some fractures in his face” and will be “out for a while,” Richardson said. It’s an unlucky blow for Tinordi, who also has dealt with a back injury and a gash on his chin the last month. He’d just removed his full face shield for the game Sunday.

Phillips appears, for now, to be Tinordi’s designated replacement. He’ll make his fifth career NHL appearance Wednesday against the Predators in Tinordi’s old spot: on the second pairing with Connor Murphy.

It’s possible the Hawks plan to merely give Phillips another brief taste of the big leagues and will send him back to Rockford next week, but it’s also possible Phillips lasts the duration of Tinordi’s absence.

He already has 116 AHL games under his belt and might not have much left to prove at that level. His plus-17 rating this season leads all AHL defensemen, and his 17 points are tied for ninth. His ascension since the Hawks drafted him in the fifth round in 2020 (141st overall) has been swift.

“We’re not asking him to be a wrecking ball out there,” Richardson said. “We want him to use his skating ability and skills. But we want him to use [those skills] in a way that he defends hard.

“If he can get off to a good start here, it’s going to help us, [and] it’s going to help him become a regular NHL player. It’s good for everybody.”

Part of the reason why Richardson has continually harped on Phillips’ physicality is because the rest of his game is already so reliable.

He’s a great passer, particularly when orchestrating breakouts. And he carries himself with poise beyond his years. He believes his confidence is what has improved most since last season.

“I’m not reinventing the wheel or anything,” Phillips said. “[I’m] just being confident, working on my puck plays at the blue line and moving it quickly, and things seem to be going my way.”

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