At the conclusion of the Florida Panthers annual development camp last week, center Vincent Trocheck simply felt different than year’s past as he cleaned out his locker at the Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs.
After getting a taste of the NHL in his first professional season, Trocheck was not only one of the most experienced players at camp, but also one of the oldest.
"I don’t know if it was the NHL games that made it any different," Trocheck said. "I think it’s just being here. This is my fourth time going to development camp, so I’m trying to be a little more of a leader. I’m one of the older guys here believe it or not. I’m trying to show some of the younger guys the ropes and if they need any help they can come to me."
Embracing his leadership role with the team, Trocheck, 21, took time during camp to impart some of his wisdom upon the team’s first two picks of the 2014 draft: No. 1 overall pick Aaron Ekblad and second-round pick Jayce Hawryluk.
"I sat next to (Aaron) Ekblad and (Jayce) Hawryluk in the locker room and tried to help them out as much as I could," Trocheck said.
A third-round pick (64th overall) in the 2011 draft, Trocheck joined the Panthers for the final 20 games of the 2013-14 season after the team shipped out veteran center Marcel Goc at the trade deadline. While with Florida, he scored five goals and three assists and led all Panther forwards with 18:53 of ice time per game. Prior to his call up, he led the team’s American Hockey League affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage, in scoring with 16 goals and 42 points in 55 games.
Maturing as both a leader and a skater this offseason, Trocheck’s return to the NHL next season may be in jeopardy, though, as veteran centers Dave Bolland and Derek MacKenzie signed multi-year contracts with the Panthers this offseason.
Already jockeying for position among talented centers such as Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad and Drew Shore, the additions of Bolland and MacKenzie have pushed Trocheck even further down the depth chart. Not discouraged by the increased competition, however, Trocheck has used these latest roster moves as fuel for his training.
"I try not to focus on who they sign and what I can’t control as much as possible," Trocheck said of the team’s offseason additions. "I’m trying to keep that out of my mind and out of my sight so I can just focus on what I’m doing on the ice and off the ice during the summer. Obviously, when I saw that happened, I stepped it up a little bit in the training."
Even with an upsurge in his training, his lack of NHL experience and a friendly two-way contract may make Trocheck the odd man out among Panthers centers. Still playing on an entry-level contract, Trocheck’s waiver ineligibility allows him to move freely between the AHL and NHL with no repercussions. As evidenced last season by the constant recalls and demotions of fellow center Drew Shore, contractual circumstances may inevitably trump on-ice performance as Trocheck enters the upcoming season as one of the organization’s most flexible assets.
Knowing the final decision will ultimately be out of his control, Trocheck plans to "go full speed in the gym" until September’s training camp as he works to improve every aspect of his game in hopes of solidifying his spot as one of the Panthers’ four centers.
"I’m just focusing on the minor details," Trocheck said of his offseason training regimen. "The defensive end of the ice is huge, obviously, in the NHL. Everybody is bigger, faster and stronger, so my off-ice training has hit its peak. I think I’m just becoming more mature as a hockey player and the little things are all increasing a little each year."