VANCOUVER -- Owen Tippett, one year removed from one of the biggest disappointments of his hockey career, has landed the role of a lifetime with Canada at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship.
The 19-year-old forward is playing on Canada's top line and being counted on to score goals at the under-20 tournament, which runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia.
Last year, Tippett didn't get an invitation to Canada's selection camp for the 2018 tournament despite being a high first-round selection in the 2017 NHL Draft and having played the first seven NHL games of his career and scoring a goal with the Florida Panthers to start the 2017-18 season.
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Scoring has never been a problem for Tippett. Having an NHL-level shot was a big factor in the Panthers selecting him at No. 10. But his play away from the puck was a work in progress and its inefficiencies played a part in his lack of an invite to Canada's World Junior camp last year, as well as being sent back to the Ontario Hockey League earlier than expected this fall in his second training camp with Florida.
Tippett took the criticism of his defensive play to heart.
"One of the biggest steps is completing my 200-foot game. I got criticized for it a lot in the last year and a bit and I think that's what held me out of this tournament last year and other opportunities, too," Tippett said.
"It's hard to hear sometimes but it depends on who is giving it to you. If it's feedback, then it's easier to take. If it's criticism, you have to take the best of it and realize what it's going to take to play at that next level. You can take it however way you want, but I turned it into a positive and worked harder to prove to everyone that I am able to listen to that criticism and that kind of feedback."
Panthers coach Bob Boughner recently told reporters he had a heart-to-heart chat with Tippett about improving his play without the puck before sending him back to Mississauga on Sept. 24.
Canada coach Tim Hunter, who was an assistant at the past two World Junior tournaments, noticed the difference in Tippett during selection camp and pre-tournament games during the past two weeks.
"Owen has definitely matured as a hockey player," Hunter said. "There's all kind of different things. It's the details of the game and I call it CHL hockey: you get away with a few circles and a little bit over-anticipating in behind the play and things like that, and he knows he can't play that way at the NHL level if he wants to be a pro, and he's getting that out of his game. That's the sign of maturity for me."
Video: Favorites to win the 2019 World Junior Championship
Asked for specifics, Tippett said he worked with the coaches in Mississauga off the ice, using video to change his habits on the ice in practice and games.
"The biggest thing for me has been mindset," Tippett said. "Habits, not swinging away, not cheating the zone and hoping for the puck to come out. It's staying and making sure you get the puck first, not being the first guy up ice or last guy back in your zone. You have to track back harder and recognize your guy. The biggest is one-on-one battles because if you let your man go, it can change a game just like that."
That was a risk Canada wasn't willing to take with Tippett last season. Now he's playing on the top line with center Cody Glass (Vegas Golden Knights) and Max Comtois (Anaheim Ducks), and the good news for Canada is Tippett's scoring hasn't suffered from his increased defensive focus.
Tippett has 33 points (19 goals, 14 assists) in 23 games for Mississauga this season, giving him 114 goals in 182 OHL games in four seasons.
He showed off his impressive release in Canada's 5-3 pre-tournament win against Switzerland on Wednesday, beating Swiss goalie Luca Jan Hollenstein cleanly over the glove-side shoulder from the top of the faceoff circle.
"Just being an offensively talented kid all my life, it's one of those things where you have to sit back and say 'OK, this is what I have to take care of' and the biggest thing I have been taught is if you play better defensively you will get more chances offensively," Tippett said. "It's been proven so far with me."