Entering the third year of his entry-level contract, Canadian defenseman Markus Phillips will make his case for being one of the next left-shot defensemen to get a look in the LA Kings organization. He’ll have to prove it with the Ontario Reign.
Drafted in the fourth round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft by the Kings, Phillips would spend parts of the next five seasons in the OHL before his first extended look at the professional level in 2020-21.
His junior days were relatively productive, particularly the year leading into his draft and the year following his draft. In 2016-17, he had 30 assists and 43 points in 66 games for the Owen Sound Attack.
The following season, he’d pick up another 39 points in 68 games for Owen Sound. Those two seasons were his best on an assist-per-game basis during his age 17 and 18 seasons (chart via QuantHockey):
You could see how quick he is in transition in his days with Owen Sound that caught the eyes of NHL scouts:
His skating was one of his top attributes at the time:
“Phillips is a very smooth skater. While his speed is very good, it is not quite elite. However, his stride gives him very good acceleration, and he is very quick to loose pucks. He also has excellent edge work and pivots. Phillips transitions quickly from offence to defense and vice-versa. His backwards skating is almost as good as his forward movement, and makes him difficult to beat. Phillips has outstanding lateral agility, helping him defensively in maintaining gap control, as well as offensively in making plays at the offensive blue line.”
The Port Perry, ON native had the opportunity to represent Team Canada at the 2019 World Junior Championships. He played during the same year as fellow Kings’ prospect Jaret Anderson-Dolan. Production-wise, it was a strong showing for Phillips. His three assists were tied for the most among defensemen and the second-highest total overall.
His 2019-20 season was split between the AHL (five games with the Reign), ECHL (20 games with the Fort Wayne Comets), and the OHL (20 games with the London Knights).
Given the significant amount of time he spent in the OHL, his prospects of becoming an NHL player at the moment are not exactly very high:
That said, the 2020-21 AHL season was his first full professional campaign. Phillips recorded three goals and ten points in 31 games in Ontario – including his first professional goal:
It’s difficult to see his path forward given where he slots in on the defensive depth chart, but he did spend a lot of time on a pair with Sean Durzi, and it’s certainly possible that could be the top pair to begin the season in Ontario.
The pairing of Phillips and Durzi goes back to their days together in Owen Sound. It’s been a bit more of an adjustment for Phillips as he’s gone up in levels, however:
“I was a completely different player at my first development camp,” Phillips said. “I was more of an offensive guy and [Mike O’Connell] and [Sean O’Donnell] sat me down and talked to me about what defenseman I’d be in the NHL and in pro hockey specifically, and I’d be more of a defensive first guy who can move pucks and use my skating to my advantage.”
If he starts there, that will be his best chance to establish a place for himself in the organization. I’ve written about how excited I am about the type of defenseman Durzi is. If Phillips can bring this level of lateral movement in the offensive zone, combined with his shot, it could be a very productive top pair for the Reign:
Having to adjust the style of your game at the highest level you’ve reached is certainly going to take some time. The good news for Phillips is he has that base of skating and puck-moving ability. If he’s able to become a more reliable defenseman in his own end, that will be one way he can shoulder his way into the crowded Kings’ defense group.
Overall, some elder statesmen on the left side of the D corps in LA in Olli Maatta and Alex Edler likely aren’t long for the organization beyond the 2021-22 season. Still, there’s also a healthy crop of young defensemen.
Mikey Anderson will continue to get a long look as a top-pair NHL defenseman, Tobias Bjornfot and Kale Clague will battle out the second and third pairing, or at least it would seem, over the next couple of seasons.
There’s, of course, the elephant of the room of players sure to be dealt and/or put on waivers – but I’m not going to speculate on that here.
As I alluded to above, this is a big season for Phillips. He’s likely to get a place in the top four (if not the top pair) not only with a talented defenseman but on a very talented Ontario Reign roster as a whole. The situation will not get much better for him to showcase he’s ready to take the next step in his development.
While he is still only 22 years old, the time is now for Phillips, given the depth around him. We’ll see what 2021-22 brings.