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Tippett taking slow route to proving he belongs with Panthers

No. 10 pick of 2017 NHL Draft, youngest player in League, could skate in fourth game vs. Ducks on Thursday

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

Florida Panthers rookie right wing Owen Tippett is aware that he is the youngest player in the NHL, 43 days younger than New Jersey Devils rookie forward Nico Hischier.

But the 18-year-old from Peterborough, Ontario with blazing red hair and a lethal right-handed shot is focused more on doing what he needs to do to stay in the NHL.

"I feel kind of like my age doesn't matter at this point," Tippett said. "Obviously I'm younger than everyone else, but at the end of the day that just gives me a reason to work that much harder."

Tippett, selected by the Panthers with the No. 10 pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, has 10 shots on goal in three games this season, with a fourth possibly coming against the Anaheim Ducks at BB&T Center on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; FS-F, KCOP-13, NHL.TV). He can play up to nine NHL games before the Panthers must decide whether to keep playing him and use up the first year of his entry-level contract regardless of how many more NHL games he plays this season, or return him to his junior team, Mississauga of the Ontario Hockey League, and delay the start of his contract until next season.

"I've just tried to block it out as much as I can," Tippett said of the nine-game plateau. "Obviously I want to stay as long as I can and play in Florida, but it's what they think is best for me and what's going to work out in the long run."

The Panthers are in the process of trying to figure that out. They've taken a slow approach with Tippett so far. He was a healthy scratch for their first four games before he made his NHL debut in a 5-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Oct. 17.

Although the Panthers had a rough night, Tippett made a good first impression. He had a game-high seven shots on goal and 12 shot attempts in 11:39 of ice time. By the third period he was taking shifts on the top line with Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov and seeing time on the second power-play unit.

"It was a dream come true," Tippett said. "As a little kid I had dreams of playing in the NHL, so it was pretty good."

After coach Bob Boughner called him the Panthers' best player in the loss to the Flyers, Tippett took a step back in his second game. Skating on the Panthers' third line with Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann, he played 9:12 and had two shots on goal in a 4-3 home loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday.

"It was a little bit of a dropoff for him," Boughner said. "Sometimes that's a little bit expected with new guys. The adrenaline was going [against the Flyers]. It was his first game and there's a few things. We talked about his wall play a little bit, but with any young player it's always a struggle. Consistency is always a struggle and that's just a learning curve for me."

After watching the Panthers' 4-1 win at the Washington Capitals on Saturday as a healthy scratch, Tippett was back in the lineup for their 5-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre on Tuesday. Skating on the fourth line with Micheal Haley and Derek MacKenzie, he played 13:18, including 1:53 on the power play, and had one shot on goal.

Tippett said the key to being successful for him is, "moving my feet and using the guys around me as well as using my shot." The quick release and accuracy on his shot has drawn comparisons to Phil Kessel, a five-time 30-goal scorer in his 12 NHL seasons and a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Penguins.

With Mississauga last season, Tippett was fifth in the OHL with 44 goals and sixth with 284 shots on goal in 60 games. He scored 10 goals on 71 shots on goal in 20 OHL playoff games.

At 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, Tippett has an NHL body to go with his NHL shot. The challenge for him is to improve his play on the defensive side of the puck. He knows that and finding consistency are his ticket to staying in the with the Panthers.

"Obviously I've only played a few games, but it's been good so far," he said.

Because of the nine-game limit before the Panthers need to make their decision, Tippett is being evaluated daily in how he plays and how he practices. But how he learns and how he improves equally are important.

"Honestly, he doesn't have a ton of experience so there are going to be mistakes made and that's part of development," Boughner said. "You have to live with some of that and you've got to teach and you've got to spend time on the off days going over video and showing him the things he's doing well and the things he needs to get better at."

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