By Steve Gunn
“I’ve been working really hard on this,” said Lumberjacks General Manager John Vanbiesbrouck following the trade. “We had an opportunity to get a top defenseman in this league in Phillips, and we were able to make it happen. I’m pretty excited.”
Jacks fans got a taste of what Vanbiesbrouck was so pumped up about last weekend.
Phillips notched an assist on Friday night in his first game with the Lumberjacks, a 3-1 loss on the road against Youngstown.
Then he scored a goal on Saturday night as the Jacks turned the tables and beat Youngstown 5-2 for their first home victory of the season.
Phillips and the Lumberjacks hope to capture two more home wins when they host the Tri-City Storm on Friday and Saturday at L.C. Walker Arena. Puck drop for both games is 7:15 p.m.
“I somehow got the puck on my stick at the point, saw a lane open up, and I just shot it and was fortunate enough to have it go in,” Phillips said about his first goal with the team.
“It felt great. It was nice to get it done right away – anything you can do to help the team win.”
Phillips was supposed to be a key returnee for Fargo this season, after totaling seven goals, 13 assists and a plus-20 rating for the Force last season.
Those numbers, which are pretty impressive for a defenseman, helped him gain a spot on the first-team USHL All-Rookie Team last season. He was also a third-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in June’s National Hockey League draft.
But early this season he decided he wanted a change of scenery, and asked the Force to trade him. He had no idea where he was headed, but is happy to be in Muskegon.
“I requested a trade from Fargo,” said Phillips, 18, a native of Edina, Minnesota. “Things weren’t really working out there. I was looking for a fresh start and a new opportunity, and I was fortunate enough to land in Muskegon.”
While he requested the trade, Phillips had never been sent from one team to another before. That’s a different experience for a kid who’s only two years removed from high school hockey.
“It was definitely a different feeling,” said Phillips, who will play Division 1 college hockey next season at the University of Minnesota. “I obviously miss the guys back in Fargo, but I’m pretty excited to have a fresh start, with a new city and a new everything.”
Phillips said he takes pride in his defense, but also likes to help make things happen on offense. He has a history of being a playmaker, totaling 13 assists in his final year of high school hockey and 13 last season.
“I just think for me, I kind of have the tools to bring some offense to the team, but I take a lot of pride in my defense, as well,” he said. “I’m just trying to put my strongest assets out there.”
Phillips’ offensive contributions will be welcomed by the Jacks, who have struggled to put the puck in the net through their first seven games.
They only have 14 goals this season, which is second to last in the USHL, one goal ahead of Sioux City. Prior to Saturday’s victory they had not scored more than three goals in any game.
But Phillips said he’s seen enough to know that offense shouldn’t be a concern as the season goes by.
“I think we have a great group of players here,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time and people building chemistry with each other. We have a lot of key pieces. We just have to put it all together.”
The Jacks will have their hands full this weekend. Tri-City is off to a very hot 6-1 start and is tied for the lead in the USHL’s Western Conference.
The Jacks, 3-4, are currently tied for last place with Madison and Youngstown in the nine-team Eastern Conference.
“I think the main thing is that we’re just focusing on playing our game,” Phillips said. “We’re starting to play better, the way we know we can. Tri-City may be off to a hot start, but if we just focus on the things we know we can do well, the rest will take care of itself.”
New kids on the block
The Lumberjacks made a flurry of player moves last week, acquiring Phillips and four other players within a few days.
A lot of fans probably assumed that the team’s slow start on the ice prompted the moves. But that wasn’t the case, according to Vanbiesbrouck.
“I wasn’t planning on making all these moves, but a player like Clayton Phillips became available, so I pursued it to see if I had an opportunity,” he said. “That kind of triggered a chain reaction.”
Former Lumberjacks defenseman Travis Mitchell indicated he wanted more ice time, which prompted a trade to Omaha, where he would be a good fit. The Jacks acquired defenseman Nic Belpedio in exchange for Mitchell, and he was assigned to a lower league.
The Jacks also completed another trade with Fargo, obtaining forward Dante Sheriff for cash and a future draft pick. Sheriff has displayed a lot of offensive potential in lower leagues, before moving up to the USHL this season.
Forward Donovan Ott was released to get more ice time and experience in a lower league.
The Jacks determined that backup goalie Matt Vernon was not quite ready for USHL action, so they released him and signed former Team USA goalie Keegan Karki.
“(Vernon) won a spot based on his effort, but at the end of the day we decided he probably needs time in the North American Hockey League to round his game out,” Vanbiesbrouck said.
Meanwhile, Madison did not have a roster spot for second-year forward Vincent de Mey (12 goals, four assists last season), so the Jacks were able to add him to the roster without giving up any players or draft picks.
He scored a goal in his first game with the Jacks last Friday.
“Any time you can get an experienced player in this league it helps,” Vanbiesbrouck said.
Overall the GM feels the moves made the Jacks a better team – but the proof will come on the ice.
“We have a stronger roster, but our issue is we’ve been fighting the injury bug up front (among the forwards),’ Vanbiesbrouck said. “We will see who chips in.”
Two key forwards injured
Two Lumberjacks who are expected to be big point producers this season – forwards Mikael Hakkarainen and Michael Graham – both suffered head injuries in Youngstown.
Both could be out of the lineup until early December, according to Vanbiesbrouck.