If you were writing a story on Sean Durzi and Markus Phillips a couple of years ago, your theme might have been about a pair of offensive minded defensemen on the Owen Sound Attack.
The story has remained largely the same for Durzi, who continues to be an offensive mind on the blueline, though both players have since switched their junior affiliation to the Guelph Storm, riding the wave to an OHL Championship earlier this year.
For Phillips, however, that story has changed and it all began a couple of seasons ago at Development Camp 2017.
“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.”
Phillips was fresh off of being selected by Los Angeles in the fourth round of the NHL Entry Draft, and a season in which he led all Owen Sound defensemen with 13 goals, ranking tied for 12th in the category leaguewide. Following that first development camp with the Kings, however, he knew that he had to alter his game to become a professional defenseman.
“I think it’s mindset and you’ve got to be very detailed,” Phillips said on how he worked to improve his defensive game. “I used to drift all over the defensive zone and just skate into unnecessary places, so when I really went back into games and watched the video, they really showed me where I should be on the ice and it’s just about always having that in the back of your head and thinking about it all the time.”
Where his game has come is evolving into a player who values his own end first as a responsible defenseman inside of the defensive blueline. Phillips went from late invitation to last summer’s Team Canada evaluation camp to making the World Juniors team in 2019, skating in five games with Team Canada. Where does he see his own game now two full seasons after he was drafted by the Kings?
“I think I’m a defensive first guy, someone who can get back to pucks and use my skating to skate it out of trouble, get it to the forwards and jump up into the rush if it’s there,” he said. “If it’s not, just play strong defensively.”
His junior teammate, Durzi, compliments Phillips’ game well, as an offensive minded, strong, puck-moving defenseman. The Mississauga, ONT native posted 37 points from 35 games played this season and added 27 more from 24 games played during the OHL postseason, as well as two goals and five assists in four games at the Memorial Cup, tying for second in overall tournament scoring.
“I’m an offensive-type defenseman, kind of quarterback the play and move pucks up,” Durzi said. “I think my best ability is my passing, I think I have good passing ability, but when the time comes, I can put the puck in the net too. I try to stay steady positionally, I’m not the biggest guy ever, but I compete my hardest and play strong with a good stick [defensively].”
Durzi’s game fits the way that hockey is trending, profiling the “modern defenseman” as a player that is mobile, can skate and make plays with the puck, while still remaining competent in his own zone.
“I’m fortunate that the game’s trending towards that way,” Durzi said. “It’s kind of how my game’s trended throughout my career, I’ve brought some more offense every year so far and I just need to continue to do my part to move pucks up and I think the best defensemen in the NHL are the ones who can make a good breakout pass and can be steady throughout the whole year.”
Unlike Phillips, a veteran of now three development camps, Durzi enters his first as a member of the Kings organization, after he was acquired from Toronto in January. Having a junior teammate not only on the ice with him, but in the locker stall next to him, has helped to make the transition easier.
“Yeah, it’s amazing,” Durzi said of having Phillips alongside him. “I don’t think I’ve been to a camp yet with a teammate, and I’ve been to a few so far. You meet new people, obviously it’s great to meet new people and there are a lot of new faces here to meet and enjoy this time with, but having those teammates, Dudas and Philly, makes it a lot easier.”
Neither player needed to look far to find a fellow teammate that recently made his professional debut in the organization. Aidan Dudas skated in six games with the Reign at the end of the 2018-19 season after he concluded his season with Owen Sound.
“I think we were in the second or third round Duds facetimed me and he was like ‘I’m in the lineup tonight’ so I’m like ‘uh-oh’,” Phillips said with a laugh. “He was pretty nervous, he didn’t know what to expect, but it was good. You’ve just got to give him some confidence, he can obviously play at that level no matter what the situation is.”
Durzi had similar sentiments for his former teammate, who he was excited to see make the jump into the AHL.
“Absolutely, we were in touch the whole time,” Durzi said of Dudas during his AHL try out. “I remember [when he told me] he was in the lineup and I was just really excited for him. I know he did a good job, I was following that a little bit, and he said he enjoyed it and it’s a big step for him to play a pro game.”
Durzi and Phillips now progress through development camp into their own professional debuts, likely to come this fall within the Kings organization. Both players are now age-eligible to play in the AHL full time and can play with either Los Angeles or Ontario.
For the time being, however, both blueliners are looking forward to taking in development camp as a way to continue to learn about being a professional on a full-time basis.
“Just learning the pro game,” Phillips said of what he’s looking to take out of this week. “I think [also] being a leader, I’m one of the older guys here. Obviously, they walk into an NHL dressing room like I did two years ago and it’s a whirlwind of emotions. I just want to be a leader here and if I can pick up on one thing here, one thing there from O.C. and O.D. I just take advantage of it.”