There is an image that stands out when someone mentions Buffalo Sabres' forward Corey Tropp. It's one you wish was captured on film. One that encompassed all that he went through to come back from an ACL tear and all he's done to work his way back to the NHL.
The Rochester Amerks were practicing at the ice rink on the campus of Monroe Community College – the one that changes names every so often – and he had been doing work on the side. Tropp's knee was still getting back up to full strength after he'd torn his ACL on opening night.
His gear was the same as the rest of the Amerks' roster, but he was relegated to one side of the ice while all of his teammates were working on drills on the other side. After doing several hard rushes to the net where he'd make a move, receive a pass, then puck the puck into the goal, he skated over toward the bench.
The 6-foot, 185-pound former third-round pick hopped up on the bench and stared straight forward. It was like he couldn't take looking down at the other guys practicing...
“For me mentally, it's been harder than physically,” Tropp said last year. “You just want to play so bad and be out there so bad and want to contribute. Watching is the hardest. It's probably been the hardest year of hockey I've had yet.”
Tropp attempted a comeback last season, wanting badly to help the Amerks' chances at a playoff spot. After five games, he found it wasn't ready and was back on the shelf, hopeful for the second round of the playoffs. The second round never came and his season ended with six games and four points in 2012-13.
A series of bad luck events have kept him from full-time work with the Sabres. In 2011-12, he made a great impression with the organization and fans in 34 games. However, his NHL time was cut short after suffering an “upper body injury.
There was also a lockout, so he wasn't given the chance to make the Sabres out of camp. If there's no lockout, maybe he never tears his ACL.
Then in this year's training camp, Tropp's skating looked back to par and the relentless effort that made him likable in 2012 was there again. His roster spot seemed written in pen. But another stroke of bad luck kept him out of the lineup.
The 24-year-old winger suffered a broken jaw after fighting Leafs' brawler Jamie Devane. During that same kerfuffle, Ryan Miller threw 'em down and John Scott took on the light-saber wielding Phil Kessel. Coach Ron Rolston was fined for the wackiest thing you've ever heard of in your life and Mike Milbury called for the city of Buffalo to be pushed into Lake Erie.
And Tropp was left with another injury to battle back from.
With a young player like Tropp – a guy who's only played 42 NHL games – the fans and the organization are still in the process of figuring out whether he will be a long-term piece of the puzzle. His play will ultimately dictate that, but it won't be the only factor.
During his injured time in Rochester, he stayed with the team. Every night, he was in a suit, in the locker room after the game talking to his teammates. He could have gone back home to Michigan. He could have taken it slow, missed the entire year and come back with the Sabres the next season. Instead he worked to come back early – there's a lot of that type of makeup that's missing on the current last-place roster.
On Nov. 2, he returned to the Sabres' lineup. It was the first time on First Niagara Center ice since April 3, 2012.
“It's been good,” Tropp said after practice on Saturday morning. “I'm just trying to work hard and get back to where I was. I still feel like I have more to give. Every day I'm trying to get a little bit better and go forward rather than backwards. I miss a lot of hockey, so it's about finding that groove.”
An ACL tear doesn't work like a broken arm. It doesn't just heal up and you're good to go. It takes a long time to get all the strength back and may never quite feel the same.
“It's different but it's the new-new,” he said. “What it is now is what it's going to be and I have to find a way to work with it and play with it on a consistent basis.”
As his life seems to go since making his NHL debut back in 2011, Tropp was thrown another curveball just when he was starting to find his way back in The Show.
Ron Rolston was a Tropp fan. He loved his effort and argued that the former third-rounder from Michigan State had more offensive game than people gave him credit for.
Then Rolston was fired. Ted Nolan was hired. And being a guy that supports the veterans first, he decided to bench Tropp for a game – a move that doesn't quite fit the we-wanna-work-hard or be “tough to play against” mantra.
Maybe Nolan's hire will work out OK for him, though. On Saturday morning, he was skating with Marcus Foligno and Brian Flynn – a line that would be a massive improvement over the fourth line and give him minutes that fit his hard forechecking game.
“You have to play your role,” he said. “The fourth line is about creating energy and chipping in offensively. If I'm a guy they see as as being a component to helping the fourth line, then I'm all for it.
“I've always been a guy that starts on the fourth line, but two years ago I started on the fourth line then finished the year playing with Thomas Vanek and Cody Hodgson.”
Tropp said he's been fairly pleased with his play, though he laments being a minus-8 in eight games. Stat fans know plus-minus to be a bad indicator of how well a player has actually played. But in eight games, there aren't many numbers with a big enough of a sample to work with.
Offensively, he has just one assist and has left a few pucks right on the door step.
“I've had some chances that I should have put away,” Tropp said. “That will come. I feel like once you get one, they'll come in bunches.”
One telling stat, however, is that his Quality of Teammates statistic via Behindthenet.ca shows that only John Scott and Cody McCormick have spent more time playing with low line players than Tropp. If he's on the ice with the Sabres' top puck possession forward Brian Flynn and last year's top possession forward Marcus Foligno, you'll see a boost right away.
Whatever role he's playing, Tropp's skill set and makeup make him a guy the Sabres are likely to make him a part of the long-term plans.
Now if he could just get a little more luck.