The Chicago Blackhawks' regular-season opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins is a week away, and the roster battles for the final few spots are starting to intensify.
"I think now it’s definitely getting more serious, which even in practice today coaches noticed," Blackhawks head coach Luke Richardson said after Tuesday's morning skate. "Getting down to business right now."
The Blackhawks' roster currently sits at 31 players, but there are only a couple positions up for grabs. Eight more cuts need to be made to get to the 23-man maximum limit.
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Isaak Phillips is one of those players on the bubble, and he can feel the weight of it.
"There's only eight [other] D left," Phillips told NBC Sports Chicago on Tuesday morning. "You don't know what they're going to do but all you can do is control your effort and your attitude and a good mindset going into tonight, have some fun, play my game, play hard."
Phillips, to his credit, played very well in a 4-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings. He played assertively and didn't give up much when he was on the ice.
Phillips has taken some significant strides since being taken in the fifth round by Chicago in 2020. He's probably ready for the next level after spending the last three seasons in the American Hockey League with Rockford, but it's a numbers game at this point, and he's trying to separate himself from the pack.
"Obviously it's in the back of your mind but I just try to not think about it, you know?" Phillips said. "I can just go out and play my best, and whatever they think is best for the team is best for the team. But I definitely think I'm ready. I think this is my year to play full-time in the NHL and prove that I'm a full-time NHL defenseman."
I wouldn't be surprised if Phillips starts the season in Rockford and is the first call-up if a spot ever opens, whether it be injury, etc. It's also no guarantee Kevin Korchinski will be a full-time NHL player this season, so a spot could open up for a player like Phillips if or when he's sent back to juniors.
Alex Vlasic is in a similar boat, although it feels like his spot is a tad more solidified. He might more-so be fighting for a role, whether that's on the top pairing with Seth Jones or more of a depth-type role on the middle or bottom pairing.
"I think I've been playing pretty well but you never know," Vlasic said before Tuesday's game. "There's still three games left in preseason and keeping my foot on the gas and not really letting off and just trying to keep doing my thing.
"My mindset coming into this year was not to really worry too much about what happens. I think I kind of get in my head a little bit too much if I find you're always thinking about it. I'm happy to be here obviously, grateful for the opportunity and I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing. I think I'm playing pretty well, so I'm just having fun."
Vlasic admitted there can naturally be a little awkwardness when it comes to competing against his close teammates like Phillips for the same job, but it's never to a point where there's animosity. They're all pulling on the same rope.
"I found last year a little bit more-so that being the case, but I think this year you just kind of learn that's the way of the road," Vlasic said. "You definitely want to obviously, it's pretty cut-throat and you're trying to take somebody else's job, which is going to be tough at times, but I think if you kind of let grudges get in the way it can create a little bit of chaos. I try to keep a pretty good relationship with everybody."
Internal competition is good. The Blackhawks didn't really have that last season because they wanted to shelter their younger players a bit from the NHL.
Now, as the lineup gets more crowded and prospects start to graduate to the NHL, there are only so many spots to go around. It's a good problem to have.
"Everybody that’s at this level at this long at training camp, you’re a good hockey player," Richardson said. "It’s just, now you’re going to have to show a little intangibles that are consistently there throughout the game, not just maybe once and then can’t make the rest of that play the rest of the game. It could be just a good interference bump, which you have to be subtle about nowadays, but roll off them when we have the puck and be available.
"You know, little things, we’re going to pay attention to detail the next two games and get down to business. We’re going to treat these next two games [Tuesday and Thursday] like we’re getting ready for the season, which we are. I’m not sure what we’ll do exactly, we may not have a full, full lineup going to St. Louis the last game, but I think what we really want to do is get a good charge going for these last two games."