TSN reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on Team Canada, who practiced on Monday in Wurtele Arena at CFB Esquimalt.
Owen Tippett owns an NHL-calibre shot and Florida’s 2017 first-round pick (10th overall) actually got a brief audition with the Panthers last season, scoring once in seven games. But after he got sent back to the Mississauga Steelheads, he didn’t quite develop as expected and wasn't invited to Hockey Canada’s final selection camp for the 2018 World Juniors.
Then, this fall, he was cut by the Panthers in training camp. But before he went back to the OHL, head coach Bob Boughner had a heart-to-heart chat with the 19-year-old.
"He was probably a little disappointed and I’d say probably vice versa," Boughner told reporters, including TSN's Kristen Shilton, in Sunrise, Florida on Saturday. "We were pretty hard on him and asked him to really work on the details of his game not so much with the puck, but without the puck."
How did Tippett view the message?
"Just kind of show more passion and compete and work on my 200-foot game," he said. "Obviously, I was disappointed, but they just wanted me to be an all-around player."
When Tippett got back to Mississauga something clicked. This season, he's playing a more responsible style and it hasn’t cost him any offence as he’s potted 19 goals in 23 games (0.83 per game, up from 0.71 last season).
"He’s taken a major step forward as a 200-foot player," said Team Canada management group member Steve Staios, who is president and general manager of the Hamilton Bulldogs. "He’s been pegged as just a goal scorer and sharpshooter, offensive type of guy, but he’s shown great progress not only in league play, but through the Canada-Russia Series as well. He has the ability and mindset now to play on the other side of the puck."
Tippett’s shot is so deadly – 114 goals in 182 OHL games – you can understand why he would be eager to pursue offensive opportunities. He’s learned to temper that. It’s hard to go against your initial instinct, but Tippett has found the right mix.
"I just have a mindset to get stuff done in my own end before I take off," he explained. "With more defence comes better offence. It’s one of those things where I’ve always wanted to go on offence as fast as I can, but, no, I’m going to take time and spend time in my D zone and make sure pucks get out first."
The positive reports from the Panthers scouts and others in junior hockey are music to the ears of Boughner.
"He's made a commitment to being a better 200-foot player," said the former Windsor Spitfires bench boss. "Getting to play for Team Canada will make him a better player. I think it will do wonders for him, for his confidence and I think for his career moving forward. Playing with that Canadian identity and representing your country are the biggest things you can do at that age level and it can really complete a player."
So far Tippett has been skating on a line with Maxime Comtois, Canada’s only returning player, and playmaking Portland Winterhawks centre Cody Glass. That trio should log big minutes for Canada. Tippett is also manning the left flank on the top power-play unit.
"Owen has the ability to score from range," Staios noted. "He's had a pro shot for a long time. It’s elite so it’s certainly a weapon, but the fact that he’s been able to round out his game and play away from puck, do some of those little things to maybe create some more scoring chances, those are the types of players and style of play that we’ll need here in this tournament."
Brett Leason missed practice for the second straight day while fellow right winger Gabriel Vilardi was also absent from Monday's workout.
"Brett and Gabe are getting treatment today away from the facility," head coach Tim Hunter said. "They're on an external therapy visit, I guess you'd call it."
Leason, who has been tearing up the WHL this season for Prince Albert, blocked a shot off his hand in Friday's final selection camp scrimmage against the U Sports all-stars and hasn't practiced since then. Vilardi has been dealing with a nagging back issue, only playing in four AHL games this season.
Jaret Anderson-Dolan, who hasn't played since breaking his wrist in a WHL game with Spokane on Oct. 27, practiced for the second straight day. His wrist is taped up, but the forward seems to be well on his way to returning to game action.
Team Canada is carrying an extra forward in case one of the injured players isn't ready for Boxing Day. Alexis Lafrenière, the youngest player left in camp, took Vilardi's spot beside Nick Suzuki at Monday's practice. The Rimouski left winger is considered the most likely candidate to be released should everyone get a clean bill of health.
Monday's practice was the first time the group worked on special teams since the final cuts were made. Canada skated in the following formations:
Tippett - Jack Studnicka - Glass
Suzuki - Morgan Frost - Noah Dobson
Most power play units these days feature four forwards, but Team Canada is taking a different approach on its second unit, at least for now.
"Two reasons," Hunter explained. "First, great personnel on the back end, puck-moving guys. And then, usually on your second group you like to have (two) defencemen out there at the end of the power play when the other team returns to full strength, because you don't want to be caught with a forward playing defence. We may go to four forwards on both power plays and then at 10 or 12 seconds left in the power play the forward will change out for a defenceman but, right now, we're practicing with the D back there because they're pretty good puck-moving D and quarterbacks."
Assistant coach Brent Kisio, the head coach in Lethbridge, will work with the power play as well as run the defence on the bench in games while Charlottetown's Jim Hulton will work with the penalty kill and counsel the forwards during games.
Hunter and his staff had individual meetings with every player before the selection camp started, asking each guy what they felt was their identity. When Owen Sound defenceman Markus Phillips was done answering, Hunter couldn’t help but be impressed.
"He described himself right to a tee," Hunter said. "He was bang on and he’s played to that identity. He’s a defend-first defender, a good first-pass puck-mover and a guy that can provide offence in the offensive zone."
To maximize your talent, you have to understand your strengths and weaknesses. You have to find your role and fully embrace it. It's not as simple as it sounds.
"My first three years of junior I didn’t really have an identity," Phillips, a Los Angeles prospect, admits. "I didn't know if I was an offensive guy or a defensive guy. But now I really know that I just need to go on the ice and make a good first pass, be hard defensively, get in the face of guys and just move the puck up to the forwards."
It was the Kings' development staff that Phillips credits with helping him see the light and find peace in his own game.
"They wanted me to use my skating to my advantage, but not my disadvantage and skate too much all over the ice. They wanted me to calm my game down and that’s worked wonders for my game."
But Phillips also needed some luck to make this World Junior team. A fourth-round pick, he wasn't front and centre on the radar and, initially, wasn’t invited to Canada's summer camp. But then an injury to Moose Jaw's Josh Brook opened up a spot.
"I just wanted to show Hockey Canada what I had to offer," Phillips said. "Thank goodness for that injury-replacement (opportunity). I went in with no expectations and just wanted to show them what I had."
Phillips excelled in the summer while playing alongside Bouchard, Edmonton’s first-round pick, and that duo has now been reunited at Team Canada’s selection camp.
"He brings the offensive side of the game and I can calm things down and be there if he jumps up in the play," Phillips noted.
"He's a very smart defender and knows where to be," said Bouchard, who was also paired with Phillips in the OHL games in the Canada-Russia Series.
Phillips appeared to be on the bubble to make Team Canada on Friday night with the final cuts looming. After all, other contenders on the blue line – Charlottetown's Pierre-Olivier Joseph (25 points in 27 games) and Drummondville's Nicolas Beaudin (25 points in 21 games) – had better numbers than Phillips (10 points in 30 games).
"There’s lots of guys who can provide offence," said Hunter, "but we need defenders as well and guys that can go out and kill a penalty, run a puck out of a zone when we need it and settle things down defensively and he’s a guy we’ll look to do that."
Phillips didn’t realize his spot was secure. Then Joseph, his roommate, got the call that he was being released.
“PO's such a good guy and he just wished me good luck and we had a good hug," Phillips said. "It was obviously a hard time, but he was good about it."
Phillips then waited and waited. Eventually news broke that Beaudin had also been cut.
"Bob McKenzie told me on Twitter," Phillips recalled with a laugh. "I was refreshing it constantly and I finally saw he had the final roster for all the defencemen and I was speechless."
Phillips called his father. Then his mom and sister called him. Then he spoke with his grandparents. It was an emotional night.
Phillips has finally found himself as a player and now he finds himself on the biggest stage in junior hockey. Taken 118th in the 2017 draft, he’s the lowest pick to make this squad.
"It's a dream come true," he said. "You grow up watching this as a kid and to finally see your name on the roster is pretty amazing."
Michael DiPietro has unveiled his new World Junior kit with pads, blocker and glove all featuring the red Maple Leaf.
"I love it," he said enthusiastically. "It’s everything I could possibly want. Bauer did a great job. We came together and wanted to do something a little unique and I’m really happy with the way it turned out. It looks classy, but unique as well."
There’s a subtle addition to the design that speaks to the character of this 19-year-old. DiPietro has "Humboldt Broncos" inscribed on his glove as a tribute to the victims of the bus crash earlier this year. It’s something he started doing this season in the OHL.
"I didn't really tell anyone about it. It’s something I just have on my glove. Hockey is a sport that brings people together through good times and bad and obviously that was a tragedy so this just reminds me why I play hockey: being with the guys, spending time with them. Even though I didn’t really know those individuals who passed away or the community, we’re all Canadian and that’s something I wanted to do this year and something I might do throughout my whole career, just keep it on my glove as a reminder."
Team Canada lines at Monday’s practice:
Comtois - Glass - Tippett
Anderson-Dolan - Suzuki - Lafrenière
Frost - Hayton - Studnicka
Veleno - Bowers - Entwistle
Absent: Vilardi, Leason
Brook - Dobson
Phillips - Bouchard
Smith - Mitchell