Clayton Phillips seemed destined to play for Minnesota. Growing up just 12 minutes from campus, Phillips spent much of his childhood watching the Golden Gophers during the Don Lucia era.
Phillips joined the Golden Gophers midway through the 2017-18 season, Lucia’s final one with the program. His stay in Minnesota didn’t last long, however. The Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick played 45 games over two seasons before he sought a change of scenery.
It didn’t take long for Guy Gadowsky to make a call.
“I remember a conversation that our coaching staff had about Clayton Phillips. I remember watching him in junior and going, ‘Oh man, that’s a great player,’” Gadowsky said. “So he’s someone we were aware of before and when he became available, he’s someone we jumped at.”
Phillips shared the immediate interest in Penn State.
“Obviously, I’ve played them when I was with Minnesota quite a few times. You just see the way they play, it just really looked like it was a fun system,” he said. “Coach Gadowsky was one of the first people to call me. You could tell through the phone the passion that he has. It just seemed really appealing right off the hop.”
It seemed like the perfect marriage for both sides. Phillips is an elite-skating, puck-moving defenseman. That type of defenseman is a cornerstone of “Penn State Hockey.”
“We like to play fast and get up the ice. That’s not a secret. He does that extremely well,” Gadowsky said. “The way we defend has a lot to do with your feet. He’s got excellent feet and he gets up in the play. He really is just a great fit for what we do.”
Gadowsky hasn’t had much to complain about in Phillips’ performance for the Nittany Lions. He has five points in nine games and netted his first goal as a Nittany Lion against Michigan State last weekend, a floater from the blue line that went through heavy traffic as it eluded Spartans goalie John Lethemon.
Phillips has integrated himself well both on and off the ice in the early stages of his Penn State career. His status on the ice remained in limbo as the fall semester began.
“I didn’t know that I was going to even be eligible until early September, so it was a long summer sitting around and waiting,” he said. “I’m so grateful to the compliance team here because they did so much work for me. The coaching staff here, everyone was just so helpful and positive throughout the process.”
With the headache of getting that NCAA waiver in the past, Phillips has been able to prove his worth on the ice. Now, he’ll get to show his former program what they could have, though he isn’t approaching the weekend with any chip on his shoulder.
“I really haven’t thought a whole lot into that. I’m really more just focused on our team and the task that’s at our hand this weekend.”
In the second season of the Bob Motzko era, the Golden Gophers have cooled off after winning three of their first four games. They have just one regulation win in their last six games, but have picked up seven points in four conference games by virtue of winning 3-on-3 overtime contests against Michigan and Notre Dame in consecutive weekends.
The Golden Gophers have struggled to put the puck in the net this season, averaging just 2.4 goals per game, a side effect of losing five of their top 10 scorers from last season, including each of the top three. Sammy Walker, last season’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year, tops the Golden Gophers scoring chart with five goals and eight points.
Motzko has also seen significant turnover in net, with three newcomers splitting time. Freshman Jared Moe has started six games while Jack LaFontaine, a junior transfer from Michigan, has started four, with Moe posting superior numbers.