“He’s paid his dues and got here with hard work and compete and a lot of teams respect that and appreciate guys like that.” – Kamloops Blazers GM Craig Bonner on J.C. Lipon
Skill is an immediately attractive abstract. It sticks out from the average. It’s hard to ignore. It inspires giddiness around the prospect of what it will become capable of as it sprouts. And it’s a natural wonder.
Anyone can pick out who is the most skilled player on the ice.
But without drive, skill dies on the vine, leaving a residue of greatness and the regret of what could have been. It’s why late-round picks such as Tobias Enstrom and Patric Hornqvist can flourish in professional life at the top level, while the considerable talents of Nikolay Zherdev and Pavel Brendl whither. Skill isn’t a guarantee - it can even be a curse.
Those with the drive will often take their skill further than they ever could have imagined. Right now we’re watching a player who was never drafted into the Western League leading the loop in scoring and forcing scouts to revisit their notes. After all, J.C. Lipon has evolved as a player in many different ways through four WHL seasons, culminating in this year’s offensive onslaught.
“Lipon is a skilled player,” said one NHL scout. “He’s developing his skill. I think the skill was always there, I just don't think the confidence and strength were.”
Twice passed over at the NHL draft, the 1993-born Lipon seems to have the right mindset to take his game beyond junior hockey arenas. Undersized in his 16-year-old season, Lipon didn’t expect to make the Kamloops Blazers as a rookie and went out to the tryouts solely for ice time. But he landed on the team as a depth forward, which was fine for Lipon since he had few expectations to begin with.
But as a 17-year-old sophomore, he was anticipating top-line minutes that didn’t transpire. This is when his ravenous drive began to show and Lipon’s own words explain exactly why he is now garnering so much attention and finally validating himself as a legitimate NHL prospect.
“I had to get the coaches' attention somehow,” he told Greg Harder of the Regina Leader-Post about his second season “I did. I turned into a power forward who fought a few times that year. Then I just kind of worked on everything over the summer.”
Kind of funny to hear a kid who was 5-foot-9 in his bantam draft year and who stands at six-feet right now describe himself as a power forward, but Lipon backs down from no one. As his points rose from 13 in his rookie year to 21 and 65, his penalty minutes also grew from 38 to 111 in each of his next two seasons. He’s fought bigger players, such as Keegan Lowe and Damon Severson and though Lipon doesn’t always come out on top, it shows to just what ends he’ll go to grab attention and earn more opportunities.
“He did a lot of things to try and get ice time that year,” said Blazers GM Craig Bonner of that sophomore campaign. “He fought a lot, he did what the coaches asked.”
Last season, Barrie’s Tanner Pearson was selected 30th overall by the Los Angeles Kings, despite the fact he had already been passed over twice before spiking at 37 goals and 91 points. The scout explained that while Lipon has a lighter frame than Pearson, he’s a better skater than the first-rounder, with more speed and flow.
And while Lipon will not be a prototypical power forward at higher levels, his growth as a ferociously driven player can be compared to one. Boston’s Milan Lucic went from an undrafted bantam, to captaining the Vancouver Giants, and eventually developed into one of the NHL’s most impactful big-bodied forwards. Giants GM Scott Bonner (Craig’s brother) described Lucic as a “self-made player” and explained that anything he achieved was done by his own volition. Lucic took it upon himself, much as Lipon has done in his junior career.
“He’s got the attitude,” Craig Bonner said. “He wants to prove people wrong. He’s a very competitive guy and that competitive edge makes him a better player.”
And now J.C. Lipon finds himself as an undrafted 19-year-old with 13 goals and 32 points in 13 games. Lipon was invited to Colorado’s training camp, but the NHL lockout scuttled that. Still, he seems to be heading on the right path in a frame of mind that lends to success.
“Immediately after the (2012) draft I got calls from three or four different teams wanting him to come to camp right away,” Bonner said. “People started taking notice last year, but it’s night and day compared to what it was. I know there were teams talking about him late in the draft last year, but definitely this year he’s one of the No. 1 topics when they come talk to me.”
Added the scout: “For sure he’ll get drafted. How can he not? I think his head’s where it needs to be for him to be a player.”
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His column appears regularly only on THN.com.
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