No Florida Panthers forward had a more disappointing 2018-2019 season than former All-Star Vincent Trocheck.
Then again, no Panthers player had a better excuse.
Trocheck went from career highs in goals (31) and assists (44) in 2017-2018 to just 10 goals and 24 assists in his injury-shortened 2018-2019 season.
A broken right ankle injury held him to just 55 games, and even when Trocheck returned Jan. 18 after a two-month absence, he wasn’t fully ready.
“Last year was the first time I had to deal with an injury of that magnitude,” said Trocheck, who hadn’t missed a game the two previous years. “I expected to jump back on the ice and have the explosiveness and speed that I should have, but that wasn’t the case.
“It weighed on me mentally, and I didn’t have the confidence I normally have.”
Trocheck’s injury robbed him of his two biggest assets — his speed and his fearlessness.
Unlike star teammates Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau — each of whom was among the top three selections in his draft year — Trocheck, 26, has taken a harder road to NHL glory.
Trocheck, a Pittsburgh native who also spent part of his childhood in Detroit, was a third-round pick in 2011 — No. 64 overall — and he spent his first two years in the NHL rotating between the Panthers and their American Hockey League affiliate at the time, the San Antonio Rampage.
He finally willed his way to a breakout season in 2015-2016 with 25 goals, scored 23 the next year on his way to being named an All-Star and then had his career season in 2017-2018.
Last season was a mess for Trocheck, who went without a goal in his final 11 games leading up to the injury. Then, he likely came back too soon in a noble effort to help the Panthers try to reach the playoffs, a quest that failed for the third straight year.
Asked if he came back too soon, Trocheck paused.
“It’s tough to say,” Trocheck said as he gave a nuanced response. “[Coming back] was 100 percent my decision. [The Panthers] left it up to me. I didn’t want to be away from the team any longer. We were struggling, and I felt maybe I could even out the lineup a bit.
“I hate being off the ice. I definitely don’t think I was 100-percent [healthy]. But I was past the point of that same bone breaking or making it worse. There was a plate put in, and there was no concern [about a re-injury]. I have to thank my medical staff. I didn’t expect to get back as quickly as I did.”
But he wasn’t the same upon his return, and the reasons why were mental just as much as physical. Before the injury, Trocheck, despite being undersized at 5-10, 185 pounds — was unafraid to go anywhere or challenge anyone on the ice.
After the injury, however, there was some reluctance.
“I wasn’t thinking about [the injury] during games,” he said. “It wasn’t painful. But it affected my explosiveness, and I was nervous to make certain turns or sharp angles. I didn’t want to put myself in that position. It was subconscious. It wasn’t me thinking about it … my body just didn’t want to allow me to get into that.”
Trocheck, who is excited about the Panthers starting their exhibition schedule on Monday at the Nashville Predators and, ultimately, their regular season on Oct. 3 at the Tampa Bay Lightning, said he didn’t feel totally healthy until a month or two ago.
Now he’s eager to put last season behind him, and he’s determined to propel the Panthers to the playoffs.
“There’s a lot of urgency right now,” he said. “There’s been a lot of hype [about the Panthers] the past few years. We’ve seen how good we can be at times. But we have to take ownership.”