At the age of 13, Zack Phillips left his home in New Brunswick to head south to Massachusetts in pursuit of his hockey dreams. Little did he know at the time, but the young man’s journey would soon go in a full circle and see him return home and turn many of those dreams into a reality.
Playing prep school hockey in Massachusetts, Phillips was thought to be on the road to join the NCAA and so it was no surprise that when the Lewiston MAINEiacs drafted him 34th overall in the second round of the QMJHL Entry Draft, he opted to not make the leap to junior hockey, but that situation changed the following season. Despite committing to the University of Massachusetts, Phillips’ rights in the QMJHL were dealt to the Saint John Sea Dogs over the summer of 2009.
Faced with the opportunity to not only return to his home province, but to also be a part of a team on the rise in Saint John, Phillips made the decision to jump to junior hockey and joined the Sea Dogs for the 2009-10 season.
His rookie year in the Q was a solid, if unspectacular affair. Playing on a deep Saint John squad, Phillips potted 16 goals and finished with 44 points in 65 games to finish eighth on the team in scoring. The Sea Dogs finished first in the QMJHL and their abundance of talent allowed Phillips to focus on his game. In 21 post season matches, Phillips tallied two goals and finished with six points as Saint John bowed out to their provincial rival Moncton Wildcats in the league final.
Though hardly eye-opening totals to start his junior hockey career, Phillips benefited from the experiences in his first year and put them to good use in his draft year.
Finding chemistry with fellow draft eligible Jonathan Huberdeau, the two were tasked with helping fill some of the offensive punch lost when overagers Mike Hoffman (OTT) and Nick Petersen (PIT) moved onto the pro ranks. With the veteran pair putting up 164 points the previous season and another 52 points in the playoffs, these were significant shoes to fill and the younger duo was hardly expected to completely replace the lost offense.
But replace it they did. Between the two of them, Phillips and Huberdeau scored 200 points in the regular season. Phillips more than doubled his previous season’s output with 38 goals and 95 points in 67 games, to finish behind only Huberdeau in team scoring and seventh in the league. This torching of the QMJHL helped pace the Sea Dogs to finish atop the regular season standings for the second straight year and matched the league record of 58 wins.
The pair had a similar effect in the playoffs, scoring a combined 54 points, with Phillips tallying nine goals and 24 points in 17 games as the duo led the Sea Dogs to their first President’s Cup as league champion.
Though ailing from a shoulder injury, Phillips was sure not to miss any action in his next challenge as the Sea Dogs competed in the Memorial Cup. Playing in all four games, the Fredericton, New Brunswick native scored a goal and finished with five points, helping Saint John win the QMJHL’s first Memorial Cup since 2006.
With a late 1992 birthday, Phillips is already 18-years-old and is eight months older than his linemate Huberdeau, but the difference in age has no effect on their chemistry, as Saint John assistant coach Greg Leland explains, "It’s been great for the two of them. They both see the ice well, so they’ll find each other in open ice or they’ll create open ice by moving off the puck and cycle and so on. (Washington Capitals prospect Stanislav) Galiev, the right winger on that line is basically the shooter. Not that the other two can’t but he’s got a great shot, so the three of them complement each other very well and that’s a big reason for all our success."
Kim Houston from the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau agrees with Leland’s assessment and had this to say about the pair, "I think they complement each other, no question. Phillips is a much more cerebral player, not quite as a physical, he’s more a playmaker type guy, but he can shoot the puck too, if given the opportunity, he can put the puck away quickly. But I think they complement each other very well."
Thanks to this chemistry and their success, the duo have helped each other rocket up the draft rankings, with many believing Huberdeau will be selected in the first five picks of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, while Phillips has a strong chance at being selected in the middle of the first round.
Speaking specifically of Phillips, Leland describes him as such, "He’s got great puck skills, very patient, sees the ice really well. He’s very shifty in tight spaces, in terms of being able to beat one-on-one down-low. He’s pretty good on face-offs."
Chris Mooring, the head QMJHL scout for International Scouting Services adds that he feels that Phillips has "top six forward upside and he makes the players better around him, sees the ice well, has a great set of hands on him, he’s a well-rounded offensive player."
But Mooring is also quick to note that Phillips has plenty to work on, including both play in his own end and the physical side of the game.
Leland agrees and notes that "he probably needs to be a bit more polished in the d-zone coverage. We’ve been working with him on that and he’s certainly made improvements, but he’s going to have to continue a little more."
When it comes to physical play, the 6’0, 180 pound forward will obviously be more comfortable as he continues to get stronger, but Central Scouting’s Kim Houston believes some of it is merely the way Phillips plays the game. "It’s just that he’s a cerebral player. It’s not that he’s not trying to rub guys out, it’s just that he does a pretty good with positioning and stuff away from the puck, but he’s not a guy that’s running at guys and playing the angles to make sure they’re rubbed out. You don’t have to be always bringing big hits to take guys out, but what he does do is that he’ll take a hit to make a play and he always does that."
Though his skating is not necessarily noted as being one of Phillips strong points, Leland calls it "deceiving" and continues by saying, "I think some people might knock is skating, maybe from an acceleration point of view, but once he gets going, he’s got some speed for sure."
But any knock on mobility means that in order to be effective, Phillips needs to keep his feet moving, something that Leland says will continue to require some work, "He’s been challenged by our coaching staff a few times when things haven’t gone well and he’s not working hard. We don’t really have to work on him with his skills, just his consistency and effort and being committed to being the best player that he can be."
This is an assessment that Mooring agrees with, continuing by saying, "You’ve got to show that consistency now or it’s not going to translate to the next level. And if he doesn’t show that now, show consistency, sure he’s going to get drafted just based on his skill level and potential, but is he going to do the same thing in the AHL? More than likely and then how far does he go? He has to turn that switch on and be a consistent player, night in and night out, on the competitiveness, not taking shifts off, working hard, taking your 45 second shift and working hard on it and finishing his checks and going into the areas that he needs to go to get the puck and go to the net with the puck."
Despite the concerns presented, all three are quick to note that these are things that can be fixed and that Phillips’ pure skill level is as good as any player in the draft. Despite taking a unique path to get to where he is today, it is hard to argue both with the success that Phillips has earned as well as how bright his future is.