Stalwart Ottawa Senators defenseman Chris Phillips announced his retirement in a Thursday press conference. Did his career meet the expectations of a No. 1 overall pick?
Chris Phillips’ NHL career is over. The steady defenseman called it quits officially in a press conference Thursday after 17 seasons, all with the Ottawa Senators, the team that drafted him first overall in 1996. Phillips missed all of 2015-16, as he sustained a cracked vertebra rehabbing from off-season back surgery, but he still finishes his career as the franchise’s all-time leader in games. Phillips played his 1,179th and final one Feb. 5, 2015. It was enough to surpass Daniel Alfredsson’s team record by one.
Phillips said Thursday he made the decision to retire along with his family and doctors.
“I loved and will miss the competition of going up against the league’s best,” he told reporters. “I will miss everything the game has to offer and am grateful for everything it has given to me.”
Senators GM Pierre Dorion announced Thursday Phillips will stay on with the organization to work with alumni and in the community. Phillips’ philanthropic impact on Ottawa has been significant over the years. He and his family have assisted 22 charities in the community, Senators beat writer Bruce Garrioch reports.
When Ottawa kicked off the 1996 draft with Phillips in the top spot, then-GM Pierre Gauthier would’ve been thrilled if we emerged from a time machine and told him his new cornerstone D-man would spend his entire career in Canada’s capital and walk away second among active NHL blueliners in games. Phillips played in the 2007 Stanley Cup final. He received Norris Trophy votes in two of his seasons. But will he be remembered as the “right” choice at No. 1 overall in 1996?
In a word: yes. The 1996 draft class goes down as one of the worst if not the worst in NHL history. The players picked immediately after Phillips: Andrei Zyuzin, J.P. Dumont, Alexandre Volchkov, Ric Jackman, Boyd Devereaux, Erik Rasmussen, Johnathan Aitken, Ruslan Salei and Lance Ward. That’s the top 10. The best players from the draft class, Pavel Datsyuk and Zdeno Chara, were never considered anywhere near the top 10, so it’s not fair to say the Sens should’ve chosen one of them instead. Neither Future Hall of Famer even cracked THN’s top 50. Considering the other players realistically contending for No. 1 overall at the time, Phillips was a home-run selection. For the most part, the assessment of his future was realistic, too. The THN Draft Preview writeup in 1996:
Chris Phillips need not apologize for being the consensus No. 1 in a draft year which has been generously described as sub-standard.
“If he were competing against the top-end talent of next year’s (supposedly bountiful) draft, he would still be an elite pick,” one scout said. “He’s a top-quality prospect, a top-quality person.”
The Prince Albert Raider rookie, who was the No. 7 defenseman on Canada’s gold-medal national junior team, earned rave reviews for the way he handled himself this season, on and off the ice.
“He’s not going to be an offensive superstar, but he’s got everything you would want in a top defenseman,” another scout said. He’s the total package – big, strong, mobile, tough, smart, skilled, intense and a leader.”
Many project him as future NHL captain material. One went so far as to call him a potential “franchise player,” though there are also some who have him rated no better than No. 2 because of his limited offensive upside.
Projecting Phillips to compete with the 1997 draft class was wrong – Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Olli Jokinen and Roberto Luongo were the first four picks – but, for the most part, scouts knew what Phillips was even 20 years ago. He wasn’t a franchise savior. He was a solid defenseman, a safe pick in a minefield of a draft year, and he became pretty much what he was suppose to become. He played a steady, safe, stay-at-home game, he logged top-four minutes for much of his career, and he was consistently one of Ottawa’s veteran leaders, though he never earned the captaincy. Per a great tweet by TSN’s Ian Mendes, Phillips is one of three No. 1 overall picks in NHL history to play 1,000 games with the franchise that drafted him, the other two being Gilbert Perreault and Denis Potvin.
Another interesting element to Phillips’ legacy: he essentially abandoned a Stanley Cup chase in the final quarter of his career, when his Senators weren’t close to championship contention. The Sens started making seller trades to accelerate a rebuild in February 2011, shipping out Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly and Alex Kovalev, and Phillips was a logical candidate to go, too. He was 32 at the time, with some respectable hockey left in the tank, and he was a pending unrestricted free agent. Phillips pleaded publicly to stay a Senator, however. He didn’t want to leave the only NHL team he’d ever known.
“I do (want to be part of the rebuild), and I know people will call me crazy for saying that,” he told the Ottawa Sun at the time. “I think you need some veteran guys that have been around to help and guide young guys coming in.”
General manager Bryan Murray ended up re-signing Phillips. Good on Phillips for sticking to his principles. But it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever regret not taking one last run at the Stanley Cup. Shane Doan faces the same types of decisions with the Arizona Coyotes year after year, and he’s a UFA this summer.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin