If we learn anything about hockey from being around the game, it is this: Things we hold true today may not be true next year.
Or next week.
This comes to mind when thinking about the evolution of Ottawa Senators defenceman Chris Phillips, the longest-serving player on the current roster.
For the past couple of seasons, conventional wisdom held that Phillips was likely playing out his final Senators contract, a three-year deal worth $9.25 million U.S. he signed in 2011.
At the time, that was no small chunk of change for a stay-home defenceman playing 19 minutes per game, which Phillips averaged in 2011-12 (19:07). Moreover, he would be 36 by the time the deal expired in the spring of 2014. Perhaps he’d then retire or find a new home on a free agent deal for a year or two, as Sergei Gonchar did.
As much as Ottawa fans universally admired Phillips for his steadfast service to the organization and the National Capital Region, there could be heard some griping from the fan base that the Senators had overpaid for a player whose shutdown days, alongside the great Zdeno Chara, and then with the human shot-block machine named Anton Volchenkov, appeared to be behind him.
Given that backdrop, could anyone have foreseen that Phillips would become indispensable to the 2013-14 Senators, whose promotion handle is #FEARLESS, but at times have been closer to #FRETFUL?
One could make a case that No. 4 is as valuable to the club today — as a veteran, steadying force on a young blueline corps — as he has been at any time in his 16-year NHL career.
That Phillips’ stock is rising is no small feat considering the Senators defensive group is home to a Norris Trophy winner in Erik Karlsson and steady Marc Methot, a local player the Senators brought home via trade in 2012. Beyond that is a young group that includes Jared Cowen, Patrick Wiercioch, Eric Gryba and Mark Borowiecki, all of whom discovered this season that learning a difficult position at the game’s highest level is neither automatic nor predictable in terms of time required to master the trade.
Phillips himself had his challenges despite arriving in Ottawa as a first-overall draft pick from the Western Hockey League’s Lethbridge Hurricanes in 1996. Young Mr. Phillips didn’t spend a day in the American Hockey League, apprenticing in the NHL, beginning in 1997-98 under head coach Jacques Martin, a stickler for defensive detail. It took a while for Phillips to gain the trust of coach Martin, who often used him on the wing, to get in on the forecheck and crash.
Eventually, Phillips carved out a niche as a defensive defenceman, while his pal and teammate, Wade Redden, emerged as an all-around defenceman with more offensive talent.
By 2006-07, the year Ottawa reached the Stanley Cup final, Phillips grew into a 22-minutes per game defenceman, a rock of stability with a reputation for lifting his game when the games mattered most, in the playoffs.
Remarkably, he remains a 21-minute man today, with gusts to 25 minutes, as he turned in during the Senators’ 5-4 shootout victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday at Canadian Tire Centre. He has long been an assistant captain, but the A on the jersey looks bigger in the absence of Daniel Alfredsson, as Phillips helps solidify the new captaincy of Jason Spezza.
A funny thing happened on the way to being put out to pasture. An idea was ditched, or at least postponed: the idea that young defencemen like Cowen and Wiercioch were ready to leap into top-four spots, while Phillips and fellow veteran Joe Corvo filled in on third-pairing duty.
Monday’s encounter with the Flyers was a prime example. In a 65-minute game, Wiercioch (whose play is steadily improving) played 15:24. Cowen, who missed most of training camp in a contract dispute, played 17:10. The old boys, Corvo, 36, and Phillips, 35 logged 21:28 and 25:09 of ice time, respectively.
Phillips played roughly 2½ minutes on the power play — a place he rarely frequented in past seasons — and more than two minutes on the penalty kill.
Earlier this season, when I asked head coach Paul MacLean if Phillips remained Ottawa’s best pure defender on the blueline, MacLean didn’t hesitate before concurring that he was.
And yet, because his services were suddenly required on the power play when the kids struggled and Gonchar and André Benoit had departed, Phillips already has 11 points and is on pace for his best offensive season, projecting to 29 points.
Certainly, there hasn’t been a more durable defenceman in the organization. Last season, Phillips played all 48 games of the shortened schedule. Before that came six straight seasons of 80-plus games played: 82, 81, 82, 82, 82, 80.
In Washington last week, we talked about the Big Rig’s remarkable ability to stay healthy and in the lineup.
“A little bit of luck and trying to do the right things and staying on top of things,” said Phillips, approaching 1,100 games at the time, and now four games past that milestone. “So far, so good.”
The same could be said for Phillips’ season and his aspirations to sign another Ottawa contract on the road to becoming the Senators’ all-time leader in games played.
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen