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Trocheck confident with Panthers after putting injury behind him

Forward missed 27 games with broken ankle last season, feels 'like myself again'

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- Vincent Trocheck feels, well, like Vincent Trocheck.

"I feel confident again," the Florida Panthers center said. "I feel like myself again."

That's another reason to respect the Panthers, who hired Joel Quenneville as coach April 8 and signed goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, defenseman Anton Stralman, and forwards Noel Acciari and Brett Connolly as unrestricted free agents July 1.

Trocheck and the new-look Panthers will open their season against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; SUN, FS-F, NHL.TV). 

"I think they've made a lot of changes," Detroit Red Wings center Dylan Larkin said. "I think one major thing as well is Vincent Trocheck coming back. I think he's been, not forgotten about, but he had a tough injury last year that set him back. I remember battling with him the year before, and he's a great player."

Video: BOS@FLA: Trocheck slaps blistering one-timer for PPG

Trocheck set NHL career highs in goals (31), assists (44) and points (75) in 2017-18, leading Florida in goals and ranking second on the Panthers in points, three behind center Aleksander Barkov.

Last season, he had 14 points (three goals, 11 assists) in 18 games before he was taken off the ice on a stretcher with a broken ankle during a 7-5 win against the Ottawa Senators on Nov. 19.

After surgery and rehab that forced him to miss 27 games, he returned against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Jan. 18, hoping to help the Panthers end a seven-game losing streak (0-5-2). He had four points (two goals, two assists) in his first three games. Florida won all three.

But he had 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) in 34 games the rest of the season, and Florida missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons, finishing 12 points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference.

"I guess I kind of expected to just jump back on the ice and be myself and have the explosiveness and speed that I usually have, and it just wasn't the case when I got back from the injury," Trocheck said. "It mentally weighed in on me a little bit. I didn't have the confidence that I usually have."

Trocheck said a plate was inserted in his ankle. The bone wasn't in any added danger of breaking and didn't hurt as soon as two weeks after surgery. But the ligaments and muscles tightened up, and that lingered until a month or two ago.

Video: FLA@PIT: Trocheck snipes shot from tough angle

"Mentally, I think, was the biggest issue," Trocheck said. "I think, mentally, I was a little bit nervous to get in some areas, make certain turns or sharp angles, cut a net. I didn't want to put myself in that position.

"And it wasn't even necessarily me thinking about it. It was just kind of subconsciously, 'Don't,' because you go through rehab and recovery, and you're so used to, like, not being able to put weight on your foot, not being able to run, jump, anything like that.

"So it just mentally, subconsciously, it just … my body didn't want to allow myself to get into that, and it was just a matter of me kind of taking the time to forget about it completely and put it behind me."

The offseason allowed Trocheck, who said he is 100 percent, to do that. 

So imagine where the Panthers might be if Trocheck regains his form from 2017-18. They finished ninth in the NHL in goals per game (3.22) last season even though Trocheck ended up with 34 points (10 goals, 24 assists) in 55 games.

Video: SJS@FLA: Trocheck nets second PPG in nine seconds

He's also an emotional leader for a group trying to raise its standard.

"Everybody loves the competitiveness," Quenneville said. "I think he's one of those guys that leads by his enthusiasm, habits. I think that the one thing Vinnie brings is doing whatever it takes to win. The all-out level, we're going to need that from him. Consistency is something that in his individual game can grow, but you can't teach what he can bring."

Trocheck, who is 26, is entering his seventh season with Florida.

The rest of the core is similar. Forward Jonathan Huberdeau is 26 and entering his eighth season. Barkov is 24 and entering his seventh. Defenseman Aaron Ekblad is 23 and entering his sixth. Defenseman Mike Matheson is 25 and entering his fourth full season.

Now that Trocheck feels like himself again, he said he can help the Panthers redefine who they are.

"It's just a matter of us kind of realizing that we can't keep saying we're a young team," he said. "We can't keep saying that our age is why we keep making mistakes. At this point, our young guys have been in the League six, seven, eight years.

"We're veterans at this point, and we need to kind of take ownership upon ourselves to really take that next step and be a team that everybody doesn't want to play against, be a team to beat."

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