When asked about the emotions of having missed all but a few shifts of the first part of his first two professional seasons, Matt Vokes didn’t mince words.
“It sucks. You can’t sugarcoat it any other way,” he said.
“It’s frustrating. You have a new coach coming in and you want to get out there and show him that you can play. He’s never seen me play. You want to show him that you’re more than just a joker in the locker room or something like that. But it was tough, because I had two, three practices and then two shifts in the first preseason game and that was it. Then, I’m just the guy who’s sitting there and riding the bike and working out while the team’s getting ready for practice.
When it came to building relationships with his new teammates, Vokes was put at a disadvantage for the second year in a row.
“It was also tough because a lot of friendships and lot of chemistry comes from being on the ice,” Vokes told me.
“It’s kind of hard to sit there and joke around with a guy because you’re not in the trenches with him. But coming back, I thought it went better than I expected tonight.”
The friendly 25-year-old tallied a primary assist on Ryan Hayes highlight reel goal and a secondary assist on J.S. Berube’s, and finished the night as a plus three. Unfortunately, he’s used to missing time early in the year, so he knew what to expect this time around.
“The same thing happened last year, so I came in and just tried to keep it simple and keep it smart and make the easy plays,” Vokes said.
“The big thing is you know your legs aren’t going to be 100 percent, so you need to make sure you’re making the smart plays. You don’t want to be taking risks or unnecessary penalties or getting caught out of position, because those are the mental mistakes. If your legs aren’t there, you’ve got to make sure your head’s there. That was my main focus going in.”
The cerebral forward was — and this should come as a shock to nobody who’s been in Trenton’s locker room — working out after the game. All he could do for the majority of his time on the shelf with an ankle injury was work out, which kept him in great shape…but Vokes says there’s nothing that can replicate actually playing in a game.
“You can do down and backs or you can skate sprints for four weeks straight, but when you get into a game, it’s a completely different story,” he said.
“We have guys on the team that are smart guys that take the load off you. Playing with Hayes and Berube tonight…Hayes has a lot of skill, and Berube just brings meat and potatoes and a lot of strong work ethic…and they make my job easy getting back into the game. I can be the third guy high, I don’t have to worry about jumping in there on the forecheck. It’s still important and if I’m there, I do it. But when you have two guys like that setting the pace for you, it makes you raise your game a little bit.”
The real challenge for a player coming off of an injury, however, is playing the second game of a back-to-back.
“Whenever you have back-to-back games, it’s always going to be a challenge,” Vokes said.
“But last year, I learned a lot. There are solid guys on this team, and they’re not going to let you sit there and get out of shape. They’re not going to let you do things that you shouldn’t to take you out of the game. Ultimately, I knew this day was going to come, it was just a matter of when. I’d planned on playing tomorrow, not today. But with Zajac and Nagy going up, I came in this morning and plans had changed. You always have to be ready.”
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com