This is what the real Vincent Trocheck looks like. It’s good to see him, because, really, we hadn’t for a good two years before this season.
Technically, Trocheck played NHL hockey in 2018-19 and 2019-20, but it wasn’t really him. He was, literally, a partially broken version of himself. He shouldn’t have even been on the ice, but he couldn’t stay away. He was simply too competitive.
The gruesome injury, sustained in November 2018 when he was the Florida Panthers’ second-line center, is burned into many minds: an awkward fall onto his leg, Trocheck screaming in pain, being stretched off the ice. It was reported at the time as a broken ankle, but he describes it today as something far more serious.
“Broke my fibula, pretty clean in half almost, and it took a while,” Trocheck said. “Surgery to put plates and pins in, the whole nine yards.”
He somehow returned after 27 games but was a shell of himself. He scored just seven goals in 37 games to close out the year, a 15-goal pace over a full season. In the three seasons prior, he averaged 27 goals per 82 games. The injury took a major mental toll on someone known as an aggressive and fearless forechecker, physical for his size at 5-foot-10 and 183 pounds. He felt apprehensive going to the dirty areas of the ice. He was afraid to put himself in a vulnerable position. And it wasn’t just because he worried about re-injuring himself. It was because he was still injured.
“I am a competitive player, so I want to be out there helping my teammates, and I came back a little bit too soon,” Trocheck said. “That was 100 percent on me, but after that season it wasn’t exactly healed, and I didn’t give it enough time to fully heal, and it carried over into the following season.
“Then I broke my other leg the following season, and it all just kind of spiralled into a big disaster of injuries that didn’t need to happen.”
After Trocheck didn’t miss a game between 2016-17 and 2017-18, two leg injuries limited him to 55 and 62 games across his next two seasons, and he simply wasn’t the same player. He lost his speed, and it anguished him. He couldn’t impact the game the way he did before the traumatic injuries.
Trocheck’s placement in 5-on-5 play from 2015-16 through 2017-18 among 412 forwards with at least 1,000 minutes played:
Goals/60: 74th percentile
Primary assists/60: 64th percentile
Points/60: 75th percentile
Shots/60: 79th percentile
Individual shot attempts per 60: 79th percentile
Trocheck was solidly established as a high-end No. 2 center. From 2018-19 through 2019-20, his two injury-shortened seasons:
Goals/60: 11th percentile
Primary assists/60: 79th percentile
Points/60: 41st percentile
Shots/60: 66th percentile
Individual shot attempts per 60: 77th percentile
He wasn’t creating plays at the same level, not even after the Carolina Hurricanes acquired him at the trade deadline last year. But the COVID-19 layoff gave him extra time to heal, as did a protracted 2020 off-season that bled into January 2021. And the real Vincent Trocheck, the truly healthy one, stepped on the ice to open this season.
Trocheck’s 13 goals in 24 games tie him for seventh in the NHL. He’s averaging a point per game and tied for 23rd in league scoring.
“The confidence is there right now,” he said. “Any time you are able to produce, the confidence comes with it. I don’t know if you can say that I had an inkling that something different was going to happen. I always go into the season with confidence. I always feel good about myself after a summer of off-season training. I think this year was just getting more comfortable with the team I am on and getting more comfortable with both my linemates and my teammates.”
“He’s figured out how we need to play,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour told media on a Zoom call earlier this week. “I think he’s found a home. It’s no different than any job: when you’re feeling good about yourself and where you fit, I think you have success. Obviously you don’t expect him to score at this rate, but we’ll take it for as long as we can.”
Trocheck is generating the most scoring chances and most high-danger chances of his career at 5-on-5, achieving great chemistry with linemates Nino Niederreiter and Martin Necas.
“Necas is just a very talented young kid, lotta speed, lotta skill,” Trocheck said. “Nino is a really smart hockey player. He plays his strengths very well. He’s good at getting the puck back for me and ‘Neshy.’ He is able to find the open areas and put himself in a good position to score. The three of us have basically been working together to find a good balance of chemistry, and it took a little bit, but we got to that point where we feel comfortable with each other. We know where we are going to be at certain times and what style of hockey we need to play in order to produce.”
Trocheck, 27, is signed through the end of next season at a $4.75-million AAV and established as an important piece on a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. He experienced a sense of loss when he was traded from Florida last year, as he believed he "grew into the man he is today" during his seven seasons there, and he made lifelong friends as a Panther. But he also felt, hockey wise, that he wasn’t a fit there anymore, so he welcomed the change. And he loves playing for Brind’Amour.
“He’s very easy to play for,” Trocheck said. “You know what he wants out of you. He wants you to work hard, and if you work hard, you get rewarded for it. He’s just the kind of guy you want to win for. He comes into the locker room, and he’s very passionate about the game and makes it very easy.”
Trocheck is passionate, too. He has that feeling back, even though he has other passions in life. Growing up in Pittsburgh, he played competitive baseball into his teens as a catcher. He remains a diehard Pirates fan (our condolences, Vincent). His father, Vince Sr., is an accomplished jazz musician who plays alto saxophone and got a scholarship to the University of Miami. And Trocheck himself is a true music lover who grew up playing the piano. But those other passions were always secondary to hockey. There was nothing he wanted more than to be an NHLer.
That’s probably why he couldn’t help but keep playing even on a broken leg. He loves the game too much. It’s also a big reason why he’s soaking up the happiness of good health and career-best production in 2020-21.
Advanced stats courtesy of naturalstattrick.com