SUNRISE, Fla. – Entering the 2018-19 season, Vincent Trocheck's stock had never been higher.
The then-25-year-old was coming off back-to-back career seasons, performing at a nearly point-per-game rate and had not missed a game in over two years.
Trocheck's name was regularly mentioned among some of the best young centermen in the NHL, which often led to discussions about Florida's amazing 1-2 punch down the middle of Trocheck and top line center Aleksander Barkov.
Nearly two months into that season, with Trocheck playing well for a Panthers team that was struggling to stay above .500, his rise into the upper echelon of NHL two-way face-off men was suddenly and abruptly halted on a cold November night in Ottawa.
What looked like an ordinary play in the corner, as Trocheck chased down a puck while Florida was shorthanded, ended with an awkward collision and fall that left him with a fractured right ankle.
It's a chilling memory, one that evokes the sound of Trocheck screaming in pain echoing through the sparsely populated Canadian Tire Centre.
The injury, and subsequent surgery, would keep Trocheck out of Florida's lineup for two months.
He returned shortly before the NHL All-Star break in January of 2019 but was clearly not at full strength.
A big part of what makes Trocheck such an effective player is his speed, and his ability to go from zero to sixty faster than most players he's on the ice with.
Not having that burst, and capability to suddenly break free from opponents and create space for himself, put a greater emphasis on his stickhandling and shooting skills, which, while undoubtedly above average, were dulled by his inability to generate the necessary space to utilize those talents.
"It was very frustrating," Trocheck admitted. "There were a lot of times where mid-game, my confidence just wasn't there. I'd have an opportunity to break away from someone, or create an opportunity, or a rush with some speed, and I didn't quite have that extra step that I was used to having. It was very frustrating for me not to be able to do that. It seeped into the rest of my game, the confidence not being there."
Playing in those final 37 games of the 18-19 season were important in Trocheck's recovery, giving him a bit of a springboard into what was a very important offseason, not just for Vinny, but for the entire franchise.
As Trocheck worked to strengthen his ankle and regain his x-factor, the Panthers went out and hired one of the best coaches in NHL history and spent millions upon millions to fortify an already talented roster.
With Joel Quenneville behind the bench, Sergei Bobrovsky in goal and a heathy Trocheck centering the second line of what is trending to be the highest scoring forward group in franchise history, it was justifiable to expect the Panthers to finally break out of the seemingly endless loop of not-quite-good-enough playoff-less seasons.
NOT SO FAST
From the opening days of September's training camp through the first few weeks of the season, it was clear that Trocheck was feeling more like himself.
Playing a strong 200-foot game and creating havoc below the goal lines, it sure looked like Florida's feisty, sniping, second line center had returned.
Then, another setback. A slightly more serious one than was initially indicated.
During a road game in Nashville, just eight games into this season, Trocheck blocked a slapshot by Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis while, you guessed it, killing a penalty.
The shot went off Trocheck's left ankle and he immediately limped off ice, appearing unable to put any weight on it.
That's because it was broken.
For those keeping score at home, that's two fractured ankles suffered exactly 11 months apart.
Broken bone or not, it didn't stop Trocheck from returning to the game and ultimately scoring the deciding goal in a shootout victory, one that was somewhat substantial as it put Florida above .500 for the first time under Quenneville.
After the game, back in Florida's locker room, the inevitable removal of the skate, and subsequent and unfortunately familiar examination of a suddenly swollen ankle, would take place.
The ultimate prognosis was unpleasant but could've been much worse.
"I broke my leg again," Trocheck said matter-of-factly. "It was a fairly serious injury; it just wasn't as serious as last year. It was just another frustrating point, where you feel like you're finally starting to get back to yourself again, and another injury."
Fortunately for Vinny, this break wouldn't keep him off the ice for long. He was back on his skates a week later and only had to miss seven games before returning to Florida's lineup.
Now the question was how big of a speed bump this injury would be on Trocheck's road to recovery.
"It was definitely a bump in the road, especially after having to get over (this first) one," he said. "I've been able to do that a little bit quicker (this time). We have a great training staff here that's helped me do so."
After failing to collect a point during the first five games of December, Trocheck has slowly but surely been picking up steam.
Interestingly enough, the game Trocheck's scoring prowess began to come around was the only time this season he's skated as a winger. Looking to spark the offense, Quenneville put Vinny on the top line, alongside Barkov and Florida's lone All-Star selection, Jonathan Huberdeau.
Trocheck picked up an assist that night, but more importantly, he was on the ice for 22:41 and was put in the familiar situations of a top six forward.
It was the first time since the injury in Nashville that Trocheck played at least 18 minutes, and it proved to be a springboard, confidence-wise.
"I just think it was me finally getting back to where I was able to play my game, where I was able to play with that speed," he said. "My ankle was 100% healthy, bringing that speed back into my game and playing like myself again."
Trocheck began to do more than just show flashes of his pre-injury self. Game after game, Trocheck was making plays, with and without the puck, in all three zones.
He was winning board battles, he was creating chances for his teammates, and he was also showing the speed bursts, particularly in the neutral zone, that had many across the league calling him an elite young center just a year ago.
"It wasn't like I just woke up one day and had confidence again and rolled with it," Trocheck explained. "I started to feel like myself on the ice, and the confidence came with it."
Beginning with his one night alongside Barkov and Huberdeau, in addition to finally looking like the Trocheck of two seasons ago, Vinny has accumulated 13 points (2-11-13) in his last 15 games.
The only thing yet to come back around is that goal scoring touch, but there isn't really much concern that it won't find its way back, as the rest of his game has.
If you ask Trocheck, however, his concern has much more to do with the team succeeding than with his personal point total.
“As far as production goes, with points, it’s not really what my focus is,” Trocheck said. “I don’t think anybody is thinking any less of me if I have 65 points as opposed to 95 points or anything like that. I think as long as our team is winning, and I continue to help this team win, than that’s all that really matters.”