There's a lot to like about Zack Phillips.
He's highly skilled, probably the Wild organization's best puck handler aside from Mikael Ganlund and has a high hockey IQ. Unfortunately, he skates like Andrew Brunette, but it hasn't stopped him from being a great offensive player at nearly every level of play he's faced so far.
Drafted 34th overall in the 2008 QMJHL Entry Draft, Phillips excelled on a dynamic Saint John Sea Dogs team, scoring 84 goals and 135 assists for 219 points and a plus-117 rating in 192 regular season games over the course of three seasons. In his third year, Phillips was forced to be "the guy" for a good portion of the year, scoring 30 goals and 50 assists for 80 points and a plus-47 rating in 60 games. Fellow Wild prospect Charlie Coyle joined him midseason upon conclusion of the 2012 WJHC, and the two were dynamite in the QMJHL postseason and Memorial Cup tournaments. In the process of helping the Sea Dogs capture the 2011-12 QMJHL title, Phillips would score nine goals and 23 assists for 32 points and a plus-29 rating in 17 games.
As anyone can see, his scoring history easily had many within the fan base excited to see what he could do when he finally turned pro. Phillips made the jump from major juniors in 2012-13, the same year as Granlund, Coyle, Jason Zucker, Brett Bulmer, Johan Larsson, Jonas Brodin and Darcy Kuemper. Of the group, only Bulmer had a more difficult first season of professional hockey. In 71 games with the Houston Aeros, Phillips scored eight goals and 19 assists for 27 points and a negative-11 rating. He would add just one assist and a negative-four rating in five postseason games as the Aeros made their final flyover before relocating to Des Moines, IA upon conclusion of the season.
With a season of pro hockey under his belt, and many of Minnesota's top youngsters either graduating or no longer in the fold, Phillips was expected to have a better 2013-14 campaign. It was only marginally better, as he scored 12 goals and 21 assists for a team-leading 33 points and an abysmal negative-30 rating on a Western Conference-worst Iowa Wild squad. Still, leading the team in scoring has to count for something, right?
This year, a new crop of youngsters is headed for Des Moines, and Iowa head coach Kurt Kleinendorst will be relying on Phillips to be another calming veteran presence. That means he'll be expected to be a team leader both on and off the ice, offensively and defensively. In addition, the potential is there for Philips to see some time in St. Paul for a call-up or two, but that'll all depend on how he's progressing. He has the upside of a top-6 forward, but is going to have to work very hard if he's ever going to snag such a spot in Minnesota's lineup.
Phillips is 21--soon to be 22--and Wild GM Chuck Fletcher, assistant GM Brent Flahr and the rest of the scouting staff will be monitoring his development closely, hoping the faith they put in him wasn't in vain when they made him a first round pick. It may be too early to say whether or not this will be a make or break year for the young pivot, but the last thing he wants to be is the next Tyler Cuma--a one-time organizational top prospect unlikely to be re-signed by the Wild this summer. If he isn't careful, that could be him in just a few short years.