In a season where junior hockey operators faced unique circumstances due to the lockout-delayed NHL season, perhaps it's fitting the OHL's top performer is Vince Trocheck, who had to change on fly midway through the year.
Cats have nine lives; the Florida Panthers centre-ice prospect led three during his player-of-the-year campaign. Veteran leading the young Saginaw Spirit by example in the first half of the season. Energy guy for gold-medal-winning Team USA at the world junior championship in far-flung Ufa, Russia over the New Year. Last but not least, offensive catalyst for the Plymouth Whalers while making a successful push to lead the Ontario league in both points (109) and plus-minus rating (+49) while leading Plymouth to the West Division title. That made the case for the 19-year-old centre to be a landslide winner in media balloting for the OHL's Red Tilson Trophy as the league's outstanding player. It is the second year in a row the honour has gone to a Florida prospect from the Pittsburgh region. London Knights goalie Michael Houser won in 2012.
"It's been hectic, it was a long season," said Trocheck on Thursday. "Starting off in Saginaw with the group of guys I've been with for three years. Going to world juniors in Russia and being able to have that experience, just being able to be on that team was a honour. To win a gold medal was an unbelievable experience helped me develop a lot. And then getting traded to Plymouth and having a new team for the first time in four years in the OHL.
"I didn't really know what to expect. That team welcomed me with open arms. Mike Vellucci was a great coach for me. All three teams I was on this year, Saginaw, USA and Plymouth, it helped me a lot."
Trocheck received 298 voting points, far ahead of the runner-up, Belleville Bulls goalie Malcolm Subban, with 78. Anaheim Ducks prospect Charlie Sarault, whom Trocheck nudged out for the scoring title on the final day of the regular season, was third with 75. Sarault, who captained the Sarnia Sting, was previously named the OHL's top overage player.
'Points come because Vinny works so hard'
The 6-foot, 190-pound Trocheck, whom Florida drafted 64th overall in the 2011 draft, could be considered the OHL's poster boy for steady but sure progress. Across his four seasons, his filled out his body and all-around game while steadily upping his point totals — 43 as a fresh-faced 16-year-old, 62 in his draft season in 2010-11, 85 in Year 3 and finally the 109 this winter. In his 18-year-old year, USA Hockey did not include him in their selection camp prior to the 2012 world junior, but he was indispensable the next time around.
"I don't think we envisioned how many points he would have, but we knew he was a good kid and a character kid," Panthers assistant GM Mike Santos said by way of revisiting Florida's decision to draft Trocheck in 2011, when they also took Calder Trophy finalist Jonathan Huberdeau No. 3 overall from the QMJHL's Saint John Sea Dogs. "That's the most important thing to us in Florida. The points come because Vinny works so hard. You can see that throughout his OHL career. Statistically, he increased by about 20 points every year that he was in league. I'm not surprised by what he did offensively, but I'm more proud of the kind of kid he is."
Trocheck averaged more than two points per game after his Jan. 10 move across Michigan from the Spirit to the Whalers, racking up 59 in 28 games. Plymouth was 23-5 while he was in the lineup.
"It was an easy transition, from the staff welcoming me to a good billet home to a really tight group of guys who welcomed me," he said.
Since Trocheck had spent 3½ seasons with the rival Spirit, Whalers coach-GM Mike Vellucci had a very firm grasp of the pivot's game. Being part of the same organization gave Vellucci a new appreciation for Trocheck's comportment.
"He's a complete player and we were fortunate enough to be to make a move with Saginaw and I credit them for making a move to allow Vince a chance to win a championship," Vellucci said. "We saw his compete level and the way he competes at both ends of the ice. When you get a chance to coach him and see the intangibles that he brings at both ends of the ice, the will to want to win, wanting to win every draw, work on his game, he's a completely player. Saginaw did a great job developing him and we were fortunate to reap the benefits down the stretch.
"It was a pleasure to coach Vince," added Vellucci, who was recently chosen the OHL's coach of the year for the second time in his career. "He came to the rink every day with a smile on his face. He and I were able to have some great dialogues about hockey and things off the ice."
Next up for Trocheck on his path from prospect to pro is the Panthers' development camp in July, following the June 30 NHL draft. Meantime, he's touched to be among a wave of Pittsburghers who have left a mark on the OHL. The roll call includes Houser, his former Saginaw teammate and current Chicago Blackhawks rookie Brandon Saad and his Team USA teammate, Anaheim Ducks goaltending prospect John Gibson. Gibson was runner-up for the OHL goaltender of the year award even though he was limited to 27 regular-season games with the Kitchener Rangers thanks to injuries, international play and a mid-season NHL call-up.
"It's really cool to see all the guys from Pittsburgh who are growing into great hockey players. It's not just Saad. There's [New York Rangers prospect] J.T. Miller [who played in Plymouth in 2011-12] and John Gibson. I grew up playing with all those guys. It's really cool to see and it's really helping the city of Pittsburgh in hockey. That comes out of the success of the Pittsburgh Penguins."
Trocheck is the fourth member of the Plymouth franchise to win the Red Tilson. he joines Boston Bruins centre Tyler Seguin (2010), Nashville Predators centre David Legwand (1998) and former Washington Capital Pat Peake (1993, when the team was the Detroit Jr. Red Wings).
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.