The Florida Panthers announced Monday that they had trimmed their training camp roster to 32 players.
Included in the cuts was Owen Tippett, the Panthers’ first-round selection, 10th overall, in 2017. Tippett will be rejoining his major junior team, the Mississauga Steelheads of the Ontario Hockey League.
Lauded for his speed and goal-scoring prowess, it was somewhat of a surprise to see the 19-year-old returned to junior. On many teams, Tippett would be a godsend – a young, cheap forward with a skillset tailor-made for the modern National Hockey League.
However, the Panthers returning Tippett to junior makes perfect sense, given Florida’s current – and future – player personnel situation, as well as for Tippett personally.
Panthers’ Tippett Move Makes Sense on Many Fronts
The most logical reading of this move is that, straight up, the Panthers have no room for Tippett in their top six – even fitting him in their top nine would be a stretch.
Barring a terrible showing over the next three games, I'd be shocked if that wasn't Florida's Opening Night top-nine forward group. https://t.co/sSAk6UEhfQ
— Jameson Olive (@JamesonCoop) September 24, 2018
No doubt he could compete for a spot, but the combination of his skills and contractual status is not beneficial enough to the Cats to warrant the usurping of anyone ahead of him on the depth chart.
That said, the omission of Tippett from the Panthers’ opening-night roster makes sense from a longer-term perspective, as well.
Tippett Provides Contingency for Panthers’ Future
Having been returned to junior and still under 20 years of age, Tippett is eligible for another entry-level slide on his contract. Only starting next season will his three-year entry-level deal kick in, at a very affordable $894,166 against the salary cap. Thus, starting in 2019-20, the Panthers will have three years of someone projected to be an elite goal-scoring talent for under $1 million against the cap. That’s good value, right there.
And it’s good planning, too. With the contracts of unrestricted free-agent Panthers Derek MacKenzie, Jamie McGinn, Micheal Haley and Troy Brouwer all expiring – and unlikely to be renewed – at the conclusion of the 2018-19 campaign, the Panthers could well splash out on some high-priced talent.
Could it be yet more firepower up front? Maybe some stability on defense? Or how about a replacement for goaltender Roberto Luongo? Perhaps all of the above?
Whatever the case, the incredible value Tippett’s going to provide the Panthers will no doubt more than make up for any upcoming departures, while also enabling the Cats to further bolster their roster.
Tippett Will Come Cheap for Panthers
Further down the road, Tippett’s affordability on his entry-level deal – and even as a restricted free agent, will also ensure the Panthers have a team-controlled asset to help compensate for the inevitable struggle to retain their stable of top-flight offensive talent.
Not only will Tippett’s dirt-cheap price allow the Panthers the maximum amount of cap room to attempt to re-sign their exceptional forwards – most of whom are currently criminally underpaid, he’ll also be able to help replace the production of any departed player for next to nothing against the cap.
Suffice to say, it’s best to push Tippett’s more-expensive years as far down the road as possible. Sending him back to junior in the short term should pay dividends for the Panthers over the long haul.
Panthers’ Patience Allows for Clear, Realistic Thinking
Furthering the notion of Tippett’s return to junior being a decision made with the long term in mind, the Panthers, having finished last season on a 25-8-2 run and only getting better over the summer, should vault into contention this season.
A season in which they don’t have to adapt to a new coaching style – with, hopefully, a postseason berth at the end of it, should give the Panthers an idea of their needs going forward.
For example, if the now-deeper offense performs as expected and the goaltending holds its own, but it becomes clear the Cats could use another defenseman or two, Tippett not only provides cheap contingency in case a forward is traded away or left unsigned, but also potential trade bait, should the right situation arise.
Obviously, Florida would be loath to give up a top homegrown prospect, but the Panthers have a window to win now, and there’s no question Tippett could fetch a handsome return that could push the Cats over the top.
Mere speculation, to be clear. But it’s definitely something to think about. The Panthers preserving that extra entry-level year on his contract definitely makes Tippett an even more attractive commodity than he already was.
Being Cut Provides Opportunities for Tippett
Though Tippett likely would have been an effective NHLer with the Panthers this season, his return to the Steelheads provides a couple of intriguing possibilities that should work to broaden his developmental horizon.
Tippett to Work on His Game
With regards to his prospect profile, that of offense and explosiveness, Tippet has nothing more to prove in the OHL. In the last two seasons, he has 80 goals and 150 points in only 111 regular-season games, adding 13 goals and 24 points in 26 playoff contests.
Thus, his return to junior allows him the opportunity to round out his game. Panthers head coach Bob Boughner feels Tippett still has some things to work on before the Cats are fully comfortable with him at the NHL level.
Now that Tippett no longer has to prove his top-end offensive skill, another year playing against inferior competition should allow him the freedom and relaxation to be able to try the new things and make the mistakes necessary in order to become, at the very least, serviceable in the other aspects of the game.
Additionally, Tippett will turn 20 in February, making him one of the oldest players on the Steelheads. Perhaps a year as an elder statesman will also give the Peterborough native the opportunity to bolster his leadership chops.
Tippet Tabbed for Team Canada?
Another potential benefit of Tippett’s return to junior is the fact he has another chance to represent his country at the World Junior Championship.
A surprising omission from the final roster of 2018 champion Canada (he wasn’t even invited to the selection camp), Tippett took the snub with grace and class, turning the focus on himself, while also not burning bridges with Hockey Canada.
An invitee to this past summer’s World Junior Showcase, Tippett could not attend due to an undisclosed injury. Still, the 19-year-old is very much on Hockey Canada’s radar and, as an older member of Canada’s WJC cohort, Tippett stands a very good chance of making the final roster.
Representing his country on the world stage – and on home soil, to boot – would no doubt be a thrill for Tippett, and the chance to compete against the very best junior-age players in the world would provide valuable experience playing in pressure-packed, must-win situations.
No Room at Panthers’ Inn for Tippett…Yet
In short, Tippett’s return to junior need not be a disappointment. Instead, it’s an opportunity to improve some of his secondary abilities in a comfortable environment with no pressure to make an impression.
Plus, as mentioned, the Panthers don’t really have room for him, anyway. Tippett projects to be a top-six player on the Cats but, right now, he’d be hard-pressed to bump out anyone in the top nine.
Better he stays in Mississauga for the year, playing top minutes against top competition, rather than languishing away buried within one of the NHL’s deepest forward corps.
Tippett’s Time with Panthers Will Come
As frustrating as it’ll be to have to wait at least one more year to see Tippett make the Panthers on a full-time basis (he played seven games at the beginning of 2017-18), Florida has done the right thing by returning him to junior.
Not only is this decision better for the player himself, it also shows patience and foresight on the part of the organisation. This type of restraint and long-term thinking – two of general manager Dale Tallon’s better qualities, should serve the Floridians well as they move into their competitive window.
Gone are the days of rushing prospects to the show; a reliable pipeline of young talent is essential to the sustained success of any NHL team in the salary cap era.
It’s heartening to see the Panthers finally embracing this truth.
Peter Ferrell covers the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs, with a side of jersey and logo (over)analysis, for The Hockey Writers.