BUFFALO – Corey Tropp’s late-season AHL comeback was about more than simply playing games. The gritty 24-year-old Sabres winger returned for some peace of mind after suffering a serious knee injury opening night.
“That’s one of the real reasons why we did try to make the comeback, so you’re not sitting around all summer thinking, ‘How’s it going to hold up in that first exhibition game or intrasquad scrimmage game?’” Tropp said Tuesday morning inside the First Niagara Center before playing in the Sabres’ preseason game in Columbus. “The mental side of it, playing those games helped a lot, I believe.”
Not surprisingly, the surgically repaired right knee couldn’t withstand the rigors of regular action. But Tropp knew it wouldn’t. He played only five times following his March 29 return.
“I was healthy enough to play and I wanted to get out there and see where I was at,” Tropp said. “I like to call it just another step in the process in getting back to where I need to be.”
He added: “Right now, I feel really good, and the nice thing about it’s just going to continue to better every single day.”
After playing 34 games and earning regular duty as rookie late in 2011-12, Tropp never expected to be away so long. So his first NHL appearance since April 5, 2012 on Tuesday wasn’t some meaningless exhibition.
“I’d be lying to you if I told you when I finished the season two years ago that it would take this long to get back to another one,” Tropp said. “So I’m real excited about it.”
Tropp’s strong rookie campaign generated excitement among the Sabres’ rabid fan base. The under-the-radar prospect was the first forward recalled as injuries ravaged the team early in 2011-12.
Eventually, he carved out steady action beside Cody Hodgson and Thomas Vanek during the Sabres’ torrid late-season run, showcasing a sandpaper style and some scoring.
Tropp had the inside track for a roster spot last year before the lockout wiped out training camp. Like Hodgson and Marcus Foligno, he was expected to be summoned when the NHL season started.
But after scoring twice for Rochester on Oct. 12, a Syracuse defender checked Tropp’s leg, damaging the medial collateral ligament and anterior cruciate ligament.
Publicly, Tropp said the right things. He didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him. But he said the injury played around in his head. He had just finished 2011-12 on a high note and enjoyed a great summer in the gym.
“I felt that I was ready to make that step to fulltime once the lockout ended,” said Tropp, who must clear waivers to go back to the minors. “I think I set myself up for a good chance to do that. To see all that work kind of go out the back door in 13 minutes of playing time, it was a tough pill to swallow.”
Early on, it appeared Tropp would miss the rest of the season.
“There was good days and bad days with the rehab process, just like anyone would have,” Tropp said. “I definitely think I took a lot away from it, to be honest with you. (I) definitely matured, and in different aspects off the ice and learned things if I wasn’t injured I don’t think I would’ve ever picked up.
“So one thing we talked about is just because you’re injured you can still grow and gain benefits from it. So I just tried to approach my rehab like it was my season.”
Sabres coach Ron Rolston said Tropp “feels better than he was before.”
“(The injury) allowed him to do a lot of work with (skating coach) Dawn Braid, work on his skating with the added strength in his legs that he built up,” said Rolston, who recommended Tropp for his first promotion while coaching the Americans. “He’s feeling really good about where he’s at right now. A big part of that was being able to come back last year and do some of that additional stuff.”
Tropp’s confident he can pick up where he left off 17 months ago.
“Absolutely, I have no doubt in my mind,” he said. “I feel great skating, and I think everything I need to do to be successful out there I can do just as good if not better.”
He won’t be afraid to get gritty and go the net.
“That’s where I got to go and where I like to be,” Tropp said.