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The Evolution of Jacob Trouba

D man never truly discovered his talents in hockey and the direction it would take him until his mid-to-late teens

by Ryan Dittrick @ryandittrick / WinnipegJets.com

Former NHL defenceman Al Iafrate appeared in 799 regular-season games over his 14-year career.

He scored 152 goals, had 463 career points, was a four-time All-Star and held the NHL record howitzer - a 105.2mph slap shot - for more than 16 years.

He also had an eye for the very talent he made famous with the Leafs, Capitals, Bruins and Sharks.

"I played with Max Iafrate growing up and I would skate with him and his dad a couple times in the summer," fellow Michigan native and current Winnipeg Jets defenceman Jacob Trouba said.

"Al actually pulled me aside when I was 14 or 15 and talked to me and my dad. He said he saw something in me, and that something could happen one day with my skill level. My dad didn't really think anything of it and neither did I, but looking back at it now, it's kind of a cool thing that happened - it really was the start of it all."

Until then, Trouba never thought of pro hockey as a possible career choice.

"I just always enjoyed playing sports and my parents never really pushed it upon me to make a career out of it," he said. "But once colleges started calling, we - together - realized that something could be happening here with hockey, and the options became all the more real."

Really, Trouba just wanted to have fun and if there was anything his ability on the ice could lead to, he figured it would be an education. That, above all else, was what drove him in his teens.

"My goal growing up was to get a scholarship and go to college. Anything on top of that was gravy," he said. "My parents always preached a good education. I went to the University of Michigan and things went pretty well, but then I was drafted and I made the decision to come here. It turns out I failed to get that education, but I still promised my mom I would get it done, so eventually I'm going to go back and graduate. I'm keeping that promise."

Trouba was drafted by the Jets out of the United States National Development Team before committing to Michigan for the 2012-13 season. There, and alongside current teammate and lifelong friend Andrew Copp, he led all defencemen with 12 goals and 29 points in only 37 games.  

"It was so much fun. It was fun. I would go back there in a second. It was tough to leave - one of the toughest decisions I've ever had to make - but it was the best year of my life with all the experiences I had. To go there and be part of an incredible hockey program, to go to school and meet so many great people that are still friends to this day, I wouldn't trade it for anything."

Trouba grew up in the quiet, suburban Michigan city of Rochester Hills, about 35 minutes north of Detroit. He was an active, outdoorsy child with a passion for sports of all kind, but never truly discovered his talents in hockey and the direction it would take him until his mid-to-late teens.

Trouba was the classic multi-sport athlete. He loved hockey and played it religiously through the winter, but was equally passionate about baseball, golf, basketball and even the usual schoolyard games like wiffle ball when the weather turned in the summertime.

"I'd play in a couple hockey tournaments but I definitely wasn't 'all hockey, all the time,'" Trouba said.

"I'm pretty grateful for that now."

His father, John, was always there to push him athletically, but never at the expense of what the Troubas considered most important.

"My dad always told me, 'If you're not having fun, quit playing.' I've always approached the game, and really, everything I do in life, like that," Trouba said. "Every year at the start of the season I remind myself why I do this. After all, I'm very lucky to. As long as I'm enjoying myself and having fun - and I certainly am playing in the NHL - then I'm going to keep going and keep pushing myself."

Four, going on five years in, he's done that in just about every way possible.  

The 24-year-old is coming off a career year that saw him record eight goals, 33 points and a 24:58 time on ice average, and doing so while getting a meaningful increase in defensive responsibility.

For the first time in his career, Trouba led all rearguards with a defensive zone start percentage of 52.2, flourishing on a team that had a negative goal differential of -9. He finished the year with a +4 rating and a Corsi For percentage of 49.7, elevating himself to the top pair after proving himself - once again - against the best players in the league.

That, along with a punishing physical presence, has forwards around the league taking note of what they're up against.

Just ask Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl, or Flames prospect Marek Hrivik - both of whom were the victims of damaging open-ice hits by Winnipeg's No. 8 early in the campaign.  

This year, he's been a fixture with Josh Morrissey as the two form one of the youngest top pairs in the league.

"I'm happy with my progression over the years," Trouba said. "I think it's fun to be playing against the other team's best. As a player, you always want that responsibility and I crave the opportunity to defend guys like (Connor) McDavid and (Sidney) Crosby. You want to be a big part of the game and have an impact, and as a defenceman, there's no better way to do that than to play against the top players and lines in this league."

But that, too, hasn't come without its bumps.

"We're learning how to do it and do it well. When you give up a couple chances and you learn pretty quick that when you give up too many against other teams' top lines, they'll make you pay right away. For us as a pair and me, specifically, I'm constantly learning - and the only way to improve is to get your reps in. Right now I'm getting that in bunches."

Video: NJD@WPG: Trouba nets his first goal of the season

With an increase in power play, even strength and shorthanded ice time per game, Trouba says the physical adjustment has been equally vital, helping him handle the tougher assignments easier than he would have in the past.

After all, the game is getting faster and the demands have never been greater when it comes to a player's conditioning over the course of an 82-game grind.  

"They have a big responsibility with that matchup," said Head Coach Paul Maurice. "They're going to grow into it and get better with it. There are nights that they've handled it really, really well and some nights where they might have struggled with it, but that's the job.

"They both need to play that role."

Whether he knew it or not when he was a youngster back in Michigan, it's the one he's been growing into for more than 10 years.

"It's something that I enjoy and definitely don't want to lose that responsibility, so I've got to keep proving that I can do it."

- Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com

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