NEW YORK -- Given the opportunity to praise center Vincent Trocheck, Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon purposefully chose a phrase that could be deemed a gross overstatement.
"He saved our team this year," Tallon said of the 22-year-old.
Bold, definitely, especially because the Panthers feature veterans Jaromir Jagr and Roberto Luongo, plus dynamic young talent in Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad.
However, Tallon said that of Trocheck, and it might not be that crazy of a statement considering the young center's surprising rise this season when the Panthers were faced with a depth problem down the middle because of injuries.
Trocheck started the season as a right wing on Florida's third line, but injuries at separate times to Barkov and Nick Bjugstad forced coach Gerard Gallant to put him at center and to play him against opponents' top lines. Trocheck has responded with 50 points, including 23 goals, and a plus-11 rating in 73 games. He had 30 points in 70 games in the previous two seasons.
Trocheck has 15 points in the past 16 games centering Florida's second line between Jussi Jokinen and Reilly Smith. Bjugstad is now Florida's third-line center.
The Panthers are first in the Atlantic Division heading into their game against the Boston Bruins at TD Garden on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; TVA Sports, FS-F, NESN, NHL.TV).
"I don't know if I would say I'm better now, I think I'm more complete," Trocheck said. "I'm a more complete player."
Trocheck is complete only because of his improvement on the defensive end. The Panthers selected him in the third round of the 2011 NHL Draft knowing full well he had tremendous offensive upside. He had 135 points in 100 games in his last two seasons with Saginaw in the Ontario Hockey League. But he was far from complete.
"I spent time in the minors with Tom Rowe as my coach and he got on me for the 'D' zone, made sure he was watching video clips with me," Trocheck said. "Coming into this season there was more focus toward that."
That focus has made a major difference in Trocheck's overall game, leading to Gallant's unwavering confidence in him. Gallant said he trusts Trocheck, Jokinen and Smith to play against any line at any time in the game no matter the score.
"We knew he had some warts as far as the defensive side, but now he's making better decisions, not turning the puck over and trying to beat guys one on one," Tallon said. "He's just been better and better every game. He's been terrific."
Trocheck said he's felt that constant improvement since Christmas, when Bjugstad was out of the lineup with an injury. That's when he started to feel comfortable and confident in every decision he was making all over the ice. He started to play late in games and take defensive zone faceoffs.
"It was just learning, learning every game, and not necessarily on a chalkboard or anything," Trocheck said. "It's about experience, watching video, following the systems and getting used to them."
Now Trocheck laughs because he thinks back to all those coaches telling him, if not preaching to him, about how important defense is to his overall game.
"It's true, it's really true, defense turns into offense," he said. "Looking back you know that all those talks are necessary."
Also necessary is a good opportunity. Trocheck wouldn't have had the chance to show his complete game without one this season.
He was pushed to right wing in training camp because the Panthers' center depth chart featured Barkov, Bjugstad, Dave Bolland and Derek MacKenzie. Bolland, in fact, was the center with Trocheck and Jokinen on his wings at the start of the season.
Barkov, though, went out with an injury in late October, pushing Trocheck to center. He eventually worked his way up the lineup and started playing with Jokinen and Smith. Bjugstad was out all of December. Bolland hasn't played since Dec. 12. Barkov, who missed 10 games early in the season, missed six more in February.
Trocheck never wavered.
The Panthers played 31 of 52 games between Oct. 24 through Feb. 20 without one of Barkov or Bjugstad, including seven without Bjugstad and Bolland in December. Trocheck had 20 points in those 31 games and Florida went 19-9-3.
"I've always known what I was capable of, it was just a matter of getting an opportunity and capitalizing on it, taking full advantage of it," Trocheck said. "This year, I've had the best opportunity I've had since I got here."
Trocheck's rise has also set him up for an opportunity to cash in this summer, when he can become a restricted free agent. He's already proven his worth to Tallon and the Panthers. Hey, he saved their tails, right?
"Saving a season is a strong statement, but without him no chance we'd be in this spot right now," Jokinen said. "That's a fair thing to say. When we've needed him, he's been there and he's been really reliable."