TORONTO – It’s been two days and Vincent Trocheck still hasn’t seen a dentist. He won’t until Friday.
Sweat rolling down his face from a peppy morning skate, the Florida Panthers centre reaches into his mouth and wiggles out the protective guard covering his top rack. He grins wide, revealing three smashed half-teeth, each a different kind of jagged — the ugly result of Alex Galchenyuk’s high stick. Trocheck scored a goal, set up another and spattered the ice like a Dexter victim Tuesday night in Montreal.
“Yep. Not good,” he says of his faulty-airbag smile. “Sensitive. That’s why I have to wear this guard.”
‘Barbed’ and ‘sharp’ not only describe the 22-year-old’s upper left cuspid but also his contract year. Trocheck, who won the OHL’s esteemed Red Tilson Trophy in 2013 as a self-described “annoying little rat” on the Plymouth Whalers, has come into his own as an NHL forward. One who plays on special teams, snipes with accuracy, and should be able to buy 18K gold fronts with the raise he’ll command as a restricted free agent on July 1.
One of two 20-goal scorers on arguably the NHL’s most underrated second line (Reilly Smith is the other), Trocheck has complemented his breakout campaign with 27 assists and was just awarded Second Star of the Week honours. He exploded for four points in the season opener and has seen more than 20 minutes of ice in five games this month.
“He’s awesome. He’s a great guy in the locker room and he’s super-skilled on the ice. He’s able to take over games like you wouldn’t believe,” beams Smith, 24. “It’s been a treat being able to play with him. He’s definitely created a lot of opportunities for me.”
Head coach Gerard Gallant says Trocheck is happy playing wing or centre, as long as he's playing. More minutes, no problems. The trio of Trocheck, Smith and Jussi Jokinen boasts a combined plus-42 rating.
“He’s got fire in his belly,” Gallant says. “He’s got some skill and some quickness. His game has come up two levels from last year.”
“He knows he’s going to get some points tonight. That’s the way he looks at the game.”
Trocheck agrees that getting a taste of the NHL (20 games as a rookie, another 50 in 2014-15) combined with more diligent off-season training boosted his confidence heading into this season.
But his competitive bite—the thing that pushed general manager Dale Tallon to draft him deep in the 2011 draft—goes back to childhood.
“I get it from my dad. He’s a pain in the ass to play anything against. He always wants to win: basketball, board games, cards… That’s where the feistiness comes from,” explains Trocheck, who still speaks with his father daily. Back home in Pittsburgh, Dad rarely misses a game.
“He’s always been pretty critical. When I was younger it was consistent. Now he’s backed off a little bit, now that I’ve made it to the top level,” Trocheck says. “Still, he’s not shy to let me know if I didn’t have a good game. I think that kinda stuff’s good for me.”
The guy with the jack-o-lantern face even wanted to win Halloween. Trocheck remembers strapping on Rollerblades to speed up his candy collection, which as a seven-year-old kid in Pittsburgh would include a trick-or-treating stop at the house of Penguins icon Jaromir Jagr—from neighbour to teammate.
Small world. And the perfect nibble of foreshadowing for a 2016 Panthers team balanced with wily veterans acquired past their prime and still-developing, homegrown youth.
“We saw the feistiness right away. He’s always involved. Sometimes too much with the referees, but he’s really competitive. That’s what they liked about him,” says Hall of Famer and Panthers analyst Denis Potvin. “You get into the third- and fourth-round draft picks, you’re not looking at an Eichel or McDavid. You’re looking for a guy where you can identify something that appeals to you.
“The first word that comes out of Dale Tallon’s mouth when he’s trying to find a player is character. Speed is No. 2. The character thing is huge with Trocheck. None of us could’ve expected him to be that effective so early in his career. Last year he only played half a season. He was good but not quite there yet.”
Now he’s there. Likely to stay. With fellow RFA-to-be Aleksander Barkov already locked up, Tallon’s priority this summer should be re-signing Trocheck (with all due respect to Jagr.)
“He’s found a fit with Reilly Smith,” Potvin says, “So, in just over a year, the Panthers have found two aces they can play together a long, long time now.”
Dental appointments be damned.