Owen Tippett’s Struggles at the NHL Level: What Happens Next?

Last Friday, the Panthers announced that they had assigned Owen Tippett to the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL, following a 15 game goalless drought. Tippett’s recent struggles, combined with the Panthers’ staggering forward depth, has begged the question: what’s next for the 22 year old winger?

Tippett is, in many ways, a strange player. When he was drafted 10th overall by the Panthers in 2017, his 44 goals in 60 OHL games in his draft year had many scouts and analysts peg him as a somewhat one-dimensional player who can use his heavy shot to score plenty of goals. Yet, nearly five years later, Tippett has turned out nearly the opposite of what many expected on draft day: a guy who can’t seem to score to save his life, but whose analytics suggest is a great playdriver at both ends of the ice.

Tippett was first given a real opportunity in the NHL in the 2020-21 season, following a stellar year in the AHL that saw him post 19 goals and 21 assists in 46 games with the Springfield Thunderbirds. In his rookie season, Tippett scored 7 goals and 11 assists in 45 games, while playing mostly third line minutes. In the postseason, Tippett assumed a second line role and put up a strong 4 points in 6 games. Tippett’s impressive play down the stretch, combined with his increased role on the team, had many Panthers’ fans believing that the following season would be Tippett’s time to break out as a top 6 forward.

So far, that breakout hasn’t happened. In fact, Tippett’s point production has regressed compared to last season. The year didn’t start out terribly for Tippett, who had a respectable 4-6-10 statline through 18 games played. However, Tippett would then go through a rough stretch of 15 games with only a single assist to show for it, being pushed out of the lineup by Florida’s depth and sent back down to the minors.

In total, over the past two seasons, Tippett has only managed to score 10 goals in 75 games, which is far below the expectations many had for a player hyped up as a goal scorer throughout his development. Panthers’ fans have grown restless with the 22 year old, calling for him to be “traded while he still has value” due to the Cats’ surplus of forward depth. However, a look at Tippett’s underlying numbers show that he hasn’t been nearly as bad as some people believe he has.

Beginning with his rookie year, Tippett ranked in the top 10 among Panthers’ skaters in many analytical categories, on what was an analytically dominant Florida team (all advanced stats via MoneyPuck’s model). His Expected Goals per 60 minutes (xGF/60) of 1.02 ranked 7th on the team. This stat show’s Tippett’s ability to create quality scoring chances at an impressive rate. Perhaps the most impressive of Tippett’s analytics is his on-ice Expected Goals % (xG%) of 60.6%, good for 6th on the team. Comparing this total to his off-ice xG% of 54.8% tells us that the Panthers controlled chances at both ends of the ice at a significantly higher rate when Tippett was on the ice compared to when he wasn’t. 

Analytics can also be used to find the biggest weakness in Tippett’s game, which is, ironically, shooting. His Goals Above Expected (GAx) of -1.8 ranks him as the 6th-worst Panther in that category. This shows that while Tippett has been able to create quality chances at a strong rate, he struggled to capitalize on his chances efficiently. A negative GAx typically indicates one of two things: a player has poor luck or below average shooting talent, and in Tippett’s case, it’s likely a mix of both. Despite his impressive 60.6% on-ice xG%, Tippett only has a 48.8% on-ice Goals %. This is by far the largest differential between these two stats on the team, and a disparity that significant indicates that the team as a whole has not efficiently finished their scoring chances when Tippett is on the ice. Considering that the Panthers, as a team, have an immense amount of shooting talent, we can reasonably conclude that these stats are a result of Tippett getting unlucky over the course of a shortened season, and given more games his production would likely increase.

Tippett’s impressive analytics have carried over to this season. He once again has posted a strong xGF/60 of 1.05 and an above average on ice xGF% of 56.4%. And, for the second straight year, Tippett has struggled with finishing despite generating quality chances. This year, his struggles in this department have gotten even worse, with a -3.4 GAx in 12 less games than the year prior, easily making him the worst Panther in this category.

Tippett’s analytics suggest that while he’s struggled heavily to produce points at the NHL level, he’s been driving play solidly and a change in luck could lead to him finding a groove in the big leagues. So, with that in mind, what do the Panthers do with him?

There are two likely options. The first is that the Panther’s great forward depth pushes Tippett out of a job in Florida for good, and Tippett gets traded. Due to his age and solid underlying numbers at the NHL level, I’m sure some analytically inclined GM out there would be willing to part with a third or even a second round pick in exchange for Tippett. The issue with this option is that the Cats would be trading Tippett when his value is low. Selling low is never advised with any asset, as it means you’re not capitalizing on a player’s full value on the market. Tippett’s value would increase greatly if he turns around his luck and starts finishing more of his chances.

This leads us to the second option, which is likely the best case scenario. Tippett spends a few games in Charlotte, gains some confidence and gradually works on his shooting. When Tippett gets back into the NHL roster, his bad luck can’t last forever. A change in fortune, along with some slightly improved finishing ability, should allow Tippett to start consistently putting some points up and blossom into a young, effective two way winger.

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