The LA Kings have signed left-shot defenseman Markus Phillips to a three-year entry-level contract, solidifying their attachment to a prospect whose application of a versatile skill set has boosted his defensive zone play as well as his stock. Selected in the fourth round in 2017, the Port Perry, Ont. native appears to be on a good track towards the pro game and earned a spot on Canada’s world junior team even though he was a late invitation to their summer showcase group.
Phillips, who turned 20 in March, needed to be signed by June 1. During check-ins in early April, it was indicated that there weren’t expected to be complications in coming to contract terms with either him or Minnesota-Duluth defenseman Mikey Anderson. Anderson signed his ELC one week ago, while Phillips’ contract was announced just prior to the OHL championship series, which begins Thursday when his Guelph Storm open up the best-of-seven series on the road against the the Ottawa 67’s. Defenseman Sean Durzi, acquired in the Jake Muzzin trade, is a teammate with Guelph.
This was a player who shortly after he was drafted described himself as a two-way defenseman who wanted to show the team his offensive ability at development camp. A year and a half later, he transformed into a “defend-first defender” whose game has rounded out as he took on layer after additional defensive layer.Phillips, six feet and 202 pounds, spoke on his draft day of his appreciation for Drew Doughty, who was 6-foot-1 and 202 pounds when he made his NHL debut. Phillips obviously doesn’t profile as an elite NHL defenseman but in 2018-19 his game matured and took on an added defensive firmness, not unlike the type of maturation Doughty’s game underwent as he evolved from someone who potted 59 points in 2009-10 to a Stanley Cup champion in 2012 and 2014. When he was named to the world juniors squad, Phillips, who posted three assists in five games for Canada’s sixth place entry, was described by a team scout as someone intently focused on raising his play defensively.
“His use of skating is much better,” the scout said over email. “More physical and harder to play against. Accepted defensive responsibility and plays big minutes against top players. He had a solid showing in the Canada Russia, series as well.” Phillips had also noted his economical skating stride during the lead-up to the tournament and credited the team’s development staff.
Hockey operations has been encouraged by a player who has developed a clear identity by applying his offensive traits to the defensive game. With an added element of physicality, he was able to close on players quickly, win battles and get the puck into the hands of the forwards faster than before and “adapted and embraced his [role] and did it seamlessly,” which isn’t an easy transition for a younger player to make at the junior level.
While making Team Canada was unexpected, his ascent was far from unforeseen. As a prospect who remained steady among North American skaters during his draft year, he ranked 50th in the midterm and 51st in the final NHL Central Scouting rankings and finished 62nd on Bob McKenzie’s list. That Los Angeles nabbed him at 118 represents a moderate but not inconceivable fall, and while it’s too early to predict whether he may live up to a 2017 draft “steal,” his trajectory appears healthy as he benefited from applying the instruction to his own game.
It’s also appearing as though the Kings will get some good returns from their 2017 class. This is, of course, heavily dependent on Gabe Vilardi hitting certain levels of production necessitated required out of a player drafted 11th overall during an important and highly variable organizational juncture. But Vilardi, Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Matthew Villalta, Anderson, Phillips and Drake Rymsha have all signed entry-level contracts, and Cole Hults, the only member of the seven-player class who hasn’t, has been a rock for Penn State over the last two seasons and will be a prime candidate for a contract next spring. Anderson-Dolan and Anderson are looking like very good value picks from this crop, while Phillips has clearly appreciated over the past year.
There is a small army of defensemen vying for opportunity with the Ontario Reign, and as a 20-year-old, Phillips would be eligible to return to the OHL for an overage season. It is not a slam dunk that he plays professionally in 2019-20. Depending on how the Kings fill out their NHL roster via trade and free agency, and depending on the organizational depth they add to a blue line that was among the youngest in the AHL last year, there is still a good list of players conceivably available to the Reign in Phillips, Durzi, Anderson, Matt Roy, Sean Walker, Kurtis MacDermid, Paul LaDue, Daniel Brickley, Kale Clague, Austin Strand, Chaz Reddekopp, Jacob Moverare and Alex Lintuniemi. Roy, Brickley and Lintuniemi are RFAs, with Lintuniemi not an automatic check mark for qualification. MacDermid, LaDue and Lintuniemi would need waivers to be assigned to the AHL.
Phillips, who played for Canada’s 2017 U-18 World Championship team after his 16-year-old season and captained both Canada’s Ivan Hlinka entry the prior summer and a U-17 World Hockey Challenge team that December, was an alternate captain for OHL-Owen Sound last season. He was traded to Guelph on January 5.
–Lead photo via Kevin Light/Getty Images