SUNRISE, Fla. – Owen Tippett has never been a guy to be bothered by pressure.
In the time since the Florida Panthers selected Tippett tenth overall in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, the Peterborough, Ontario native has always maintained a very even keel attitude.
He seems to have an astute understanding of the ups and downs that come with being a young professional hockey player, particularly one saddled with the expectations of being a former first round pick.
Over the years, Tippett has been consistent in expressing a simple desire to get better every single day, to remain positive and focused on the road ahead, without getting too high or too low.
It’s an approach that has suited Tippett well as he maneuvered his way from the OHL to the American League and now, finally, the big stage of the NHL.
“My mindset hasn’t changed at all,” Tippett said following Saturday’s training camp practice and scrimmage. “I still want to prove that I deserve to be here each and every day, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
As a 22-year-old rookie, Tippett saw his game lack consistency in the early parts of last season. He played most of the first month on Florida’s third line before becoming a healthy scratch and eventually being moved, albeit temporarily, to the taxi squad.
Shifts between the third and fourth line would follow, but that all changed on a Tuesday night in late April.
With only a handful of games remaining in the regular season, Panthers coach Joel Quennville made one of his patented mid-game switches and gave Tippett a look on Florida’s second line, alongside newly acquired center Sam Bennett and star left winger Jonathan Huberdeau.
That night in Nashville turned out to be the start of a major turning point in Tippett’s young career.
The trio instantly clicked as a unit and Tippett appeared to be playing with more confidence than ever before, holding on to the puck longer and utilizing his playmaking ability more and more.
“I thought last year was an important year for him to take that next step,” Quenneville said Saturday. “I think that we were watching him, and we were hoping that his progress would be (where) all of a sudden he could stay in the lineup, and then all of a sudden, he stayed in the lineup and played on a very important line.”
The Panthers closed out the regular season winning six straight games, all with Tippett locked into that second line right wing spot.
The line continued to produce during Florida’s first round playoff series against Tampa Bay, with Tippett looking the part of a top prospect starting to make some headway at the highest level.
That’s why it makes perfect sense for Tippett to start the new season in the same spot, next to Bennett and Huberdeau, and that’s exactly where Quenneville has slotted the young sniper through the first three days of training camp.
“I think last year when we got a feel for each other, and we started to click in the playoffs there, we saw that there could be something going forward,” said Tippett. “I think that was our mindset coming into (this season). We just want to build off that and be even better this year.”
Said Bennett: “Instantly we were finding that chemistry. They are two great players to play with, so I think the more we get to play together, the better we’re going to be and the more chemistry we’re going to find.”
One of the reasons Tippett’s late-season surge turned so many heads in Sunrise is not just because of who he was playing with, but who they were playing against.
The stakes are always high during those late-season games with teams fighting for their playoff lives, so it was great to see Tippett standing out much more frequently. That excitement reached another level entirely when the postseason began and Tippett was not only keeping pace with his veteran linemates, but elevating the play of the unit as a whole.
And he was doing it against the eventual Stanley Cup Champions.
“I think that was a big step for him last year, and against big teams in big games,” Quenneville said. “Then he comes in here this year, and it looks like he wants to be a big part of that line, and the three of them can all do pretty good things with it.”
Confidence of the head coach? Check.
Confidence of linemates? Check.
“His ceiling is so high,” Bennett said of Tippett. “Once he really starts to believe how good he is, he’s going to be even better. He’s got so much skill and he’s so fast, I love playing with him. He can bring a lot to the table, and I think he’s a player that is going to have a really good year.”
Ultimately, the success or failure of Tippett’s sophomore season shouldn’t be tethered to who he plays on a line with, but starting out the year skating with a couple of bona fide ice-ballers certainly won’t hurt things.
The more experience and knowledge Tippett can soak up from Huberdeau and Bennett, the better.
“I think we all just feed off each other well,” said Tippett. “Our communication on or off the ice, whether it’s on the bench or whatnot, it’s great. We help each other with plays, and we just find each other.”
While it’s only been a few practices, all signs indicate that the group has picked up right where they left off last season.
They have had some impressive shifts during a pair of intrasquad scrimmages on Friday and Saturday, with Tippett netting a pair of goals in the most recent affair.
The unit had Quenneville smiling while discussing it afterwards, suggesting that there could be some impressive offensive displays in their future.
“Tippy has got a terrific shot, but he also has got some playmaking ability, so it could be interesting to see who ends up with the production on that line, and when I say the production, I mean the finishing touches,” Quenneville said.
- Joe Thornton returned to practice on Saturday after missing Friday’s workout. Quenneville said Friday that whatever kept Thornton off the ice wasn’t anything serious.
- Rookie Anton Lundell has yet to make his first training camp appearance. Quenneville said Friday he hoped to see Lundell on the ice over the weekend, but it is not known whether he will skate during one of Sunday’s preseason games. Considering he’s yet to take part in an NHL camp practice, it’s not likely that his debut would come during a game.
- On Friday the Panthers signed 2020 third round pick Justin Sourdif to his three-year entry-level contract.
“I was obviously really excited and talked to my family,” Sourdif said of finding out about his first NHL deal. “A lot of nerves and a lot of excitement at the same time. I’ve been working really hard ever since I was drafted by Florida to sign a contract. I love South Florida and I want to stay in this organization. I feel like I’ve achieved that first step. It’s just work now, day in and day out.”
Sourdif is expected to play with his junior team in Vancouver of the the WHL this season, but not until after getting a little NHL preseason action under his belt on Sunday.
QUENNEVILLE ON YOUNGSTERS
On Saturday Quenneville gave some insight into a pair of Panthers prospects who have turned some heads between last week’s development camp and this week’s training camp.
Q on Justin Sourdif – “I think he’s got a nice future because he’s a competitive kid, he moves well, and he’s strong on the puck. I like the battle that he and (Hornqvist) had out there, he handled himself pretty well against a guy that knows how to do that stuff, so it was the fun to watch him. He’s had that type of camp where we were aware of him, and we look forward to seeing playing in a in a big game tomorrow. He’s done well.”
Q on Justin Nachbaur – “He’s a hardworking-type kid. Up and down, one of those prototypical players that win puck battles at the net, hard to play against role players that seem to be useful in our game today. He finds a way to come up with loose pucks. Simple is probably the way to describe his game. He’s effective doing that well. I thought that he progressed in (development) camp and earned a longer look in the big camp. Sometimes you get rewarded by effort and I think that he was noticed and that’s why he’s here.”