When the Florida Panthers shipped top-prospect Owen Tippett back to Ontario Hockey League back in November, the former first-round pick didn't leave empty handed. From training camp to his NHL debut, the 18-year-old soaked it all in, hoping to carry a newfound professional approach into what he hopes will be his final junior campaign.
The biggest takeaway from his time in the NHL?
"How to be a pro and how to approach each day at the rink," Tippett told FloridaPanthers.com in a recent telephone interview. "It's a little different once you're up at the NHL level. I took in as much as I could and then brought it back here."
The 10th overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, Tippett appeared in seven games with Florida. He recorded one goal and 17 shots, including a game-high seven in his debut against Philadelphia on Oct. 17. He scored his first goal on Oct. 26 against Anaheim, but was reassigned to his OHL team in Mississauga three games after that.
When asked about the biggest differences he noticed between junior and professional hockey, Tippett singled out "the speed at which things happen" as the hardest hurdle to overcome during his transition. When there's less time to think, instincts become more important - a skill that can typically only be acquired through repetition and practice.
"It's a fast game," said Tippett, who averaged 11:07 of ice time in his first stint with the Panthers. "The way the puck moves around and how everyone knows really where to be is a lot different."
Since returning to the Steelheads, however, Tippett has been on a tear.
In 48 games, Tippett has registered 33 goals and 37 assists, helping the Steelheads clinch a playoff berth in the OHL's Eastern Conference. A natural goal scorer armed with one of the best shots in junior hockey, he has seven games with at least two goals, including a pair of hat tricks.
"Obviously, his shot is what people are drawn to when they see his quick release and how heavy his shot is," Mississauga head coach James Richmond said. "But you need to be fast to play the game now and you need to be strong. His speed and strength are also paramount."
At 6-foot-2 and 204 pounds, Tippett certainly possesses an NHL-ready frame, but it has been a noticeable change in his demeanor that makes Richmond believe his top goal-scorer will be suiting up for the Panthers sooner rather than later, saying that Tippett's time the pros helped the up-and-coming star develop thicker skin and that "not that much affects him" anymore.
"He's on the right path to being an NHL-er," Richmond said. "He's gotten bigger, stronger, faster, more mature as a person and as a hockey player. He's doing all the things young guys need to do to make it to the NHL."
After getting a taste of life in the pros, Tippett said he is more determined than ever to become a full-time player for the Panthers. He's already made a few friends on the team and has followed his future squad closely during their late-season playoff push.
Simply put: whenever Steelheads have a night off, Tippett is tuning into the Panthers.
"It's been pretty crazy," he said. "A lot of heads are turning, even here." But come next season, it could be Tippett that's turning heads in South Florida.