By Bill Whitehead
Sometimes players are just naturally connected to other players throughout their playing careers. MJ-Scottie, Sid-Geno, Stockton-Malone and LeBron-Dwyane. Okay, that last one stings a bit, but maybe there’s another duo you can add to take the place of the former Miami Heat dynamic tandem among South Florida teammates.
Has a great ring to it, right?
Vincent Trocheck and Rocco Grimaldi, two of the Florida Panthers’ most prized prospects, have been conjoined over the last decade, developing their skills together in youth hockey, being selected by the Panthers at the same draft and enjoying incredible success at the 2013 World Junior Championship in Russia while playing on the same line.
The only difference is the paths they took in navigating their way to play for the big club.
Trocheck had a breakout season in 2012-13 playing for Saginaw and Plymouth, winning the OHL’s scoring title with 109 points. Grimaldi opted for the University of North Dakota and the lure of beautiful Ralph Engelstad Arena, where he played before some of the best fans in college hockey. Together, they found time in that span to help the US team win gold at the WJC, with Grimaldi scoring two goals and Trocheck clinching the top spot for the Americans with an empty-net marker in the closing seconds of a 3-1 win over Sweden in the final game.
Now it’s time to have that success with the Panthers.
Trocheck, who just completed his fourth development camp, has tasted NHL success. He scored five goals and had three assists in 20 games for the Cats last year, and most importantly, he looked like he belongs in the NHL and has a great track history of winning and producing as a center.
The present pressure is placed on Grimaldi, a 5-foot-6 skilled forward who lacks size but makes up for it with pure talent and determination that, well, comes with battling doubts about his stature his whole career. He turned pro in May after three seasons at UND and is now on another part of his journey — making it to the NHL.
Florida director of player development Brian Skrudland takes pride in players like Grimaldi and Trocheck, and he doesn’t doubt the former’s character and persistence.
“(Rocco’s) such a dynamic player,” Skrudland said during development camp. “When I went to the University of North Dakota and sat in the crowd, I felt so proud that Rocco Grimaldi was a Panther. Everyone in the stands was saying, ‘Watch this little guy, he’s going to light it up.’
“He might just be that guy who says, ‘You know what, (5-9) Brendan Gallagher did it with Montreal. I’m coming in here and not going to San Antonio.’ It’s up to him to make the coach’s decision a hard one.”
With centers being the center of attention for the Panthers, Grimaldi finds himself in a good situation.
“Last year I played winger up until December then I played center the rest of the way. I’ve played center my entire life until I got to college. That was the only time I’ve ever played wing. For this, it doesn’t matter if I’m playing wing, center, defense, goalie – I want to make the team so whatever they want me to do, I’ll do,” he said.
A right-handed shot, the southern California native said moving from center to wing is just a matter of prioritizing.
“It just all goes back to details when you’re doing drills and stuff. You’ve got to pay attention to not only your role as a centerman but what the wing’s role is. You have to be aware of that. I’ve seen forwards go back to defense and defense go up to forward. That’s a harder adjustment than anything else. You just have to pay attention to everything they’re asking you to do, regardless if it’s your position or not. You never know, one day it could be you,” Grimaldi said.
He said he was happy to see Trocheck have success last year – “It’s really encouraging for me to see him do that” – and feels he can rely on the Pittsburgh native in tough times.
“I played Little Caesar’s (Hockey Club) with him when were 16 and I’ve known him a long time. It’s great to see that he’s doing well. It’s crazy that we’re still on this journey together. He’s a good guy who works hard and that’s something I like to do, too. He’s someone I can push and he can push me. It’s a good relationship to have,” said Grimaldi.
Added Trocheck: “I’ve grown up with Rocco from a pretty young age. He’s definitely exciting to watch. It’s tough for me to see a difference (in his game) because I’ve seen him consistently my whole life.”
The diminutive Grimaldi might bring a pint-sized body to the rink, but his character, skill and grit more than stand tall out there on the ice. It’s something Trocheck has watched for a long time.
Loaded with character and the epitome of winners who do all the little things well, Grimaldi and Trocheck are key pieces of the organization. GM Dale Tallon has preached character during his tenure with the Panthers, and both are high-character young men who have a track record of winning, so expect them to stick around. Grimaldi and Trocheck likely will have to be patient this season — for a while, at least — with the way the Florida roster looks, but at 21, they both have plenty of time to develop.
They’ll likely be honing their talents and winning games like they always have.
Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com