Healthy Rogers ready to prove his worth

by Erin Chernderlin ||

Defenseman Andy Rogers has a lot to prove this year. He knows as well as anyone that in order to make it through the season, you have to first make it through the rookie tournament. He wasn’t so fortunate last year and has no plans of letting that happen again.

Rogers, along with 19 other Tampa Bay Lightning prospects and tryouts, will be traveling to Traverse City, Mich., to compete with seven other NHL rookie teams in the five-day tournament. The tournament, which starts Sept. 7, gives rookies a chance to impress both AHL and NHL scouts and coaches, in hopes of getting a shot to compete at training camp for a roster slot.

A first-round draft pick by the Lightning in 2004, Rogers, 21, has been here before. Three times, actually. After spending last season with the AHL’s Springfield Falcons, this is Rogers’ final stint at Traverse City. Teams are allowed only four players with no more than one year of pro experience.

“I’m just hoping to go in there, stay healthy, play my game and prove myself,” he said. “I know last year was kind of a roller coaster ride because of injuries and everything, but it’s the start of a new season, and there’s no better way to start it off than a good tournament in Traverse City.”

Rogers’ roller coaster ride of injuries started well before last year’s tournament. After battling chronic ankle pain for more than two seasons, doctors finally determined he would need major reconstructive surgery to repair the tendons in his left ankle. Lightning head medical trainer Tom Mulligan said the ligaments in Rogers’ ankle were incredibly loose, causing instability.

“We could basically take his ankle and turn it 90 degrees inward because the ligaments in there were just so lax,” he said.

Genetic instability caused the problem, Mulligan said, not any injury incurred while playing hockey.

“I just sprained it so many times that eventually the ligaments loosened and tore,” Rogers said.

Rogers underwent reconstruction surgery in January, 2006. Since it was major surgery, he wasn’t allowed to put weight on his left side for almost two months. After six months of rehab, Rogers got back on skates and started rebuilding his strength. He participated in a Lightning conditioning camp that July, but did no scrimmaging. He worked for another month, then went to Michigan for the Traverse City Tournament last September.

Thinking he was finally on the road to recovery, Rogers learned his problems were only just beginning. During the second game of the Traverse City Tournament against the Detroit Red Wings, Rogers went down with a hip flexor strain. He was out for the rest of the tournament and missed more than half of the following season with Springfield due to recurring hip and groin problems.

“It was heartbreaking,” Rogers said. “I worked hard all summer to make an impact in the rookie camp and hopefully the main camp, but never got a chance to prove myself. It was a lingering injury that carried about halfway through the season, so it was pretty tough to deal with.”

Rogers credits Tampa Bay trainers and doctors for getting the injury healed and said it hasn’t bothered him since.

Mulligan pinpointed the months of inactivity, followed by intense physical therapy, as the trigger for the hip and groin problems. “The muscle starts to weaken pretty quickly, and to try and build it back up to hockey strength, that led to the hip problems,” he said.

Rogers knows the key to this season is to stay healthy. He’s been working, on his own time, with Lightning strength and conditioning coach Eric Lawson to develop programs to improve his balance and lower-body stability.

“He’s been really diligent about staying on his conditioning program we have him on,” Mulligan said. “We’re hoping he’s strengthened and balanced the muscle structure in his lower body well enough to prevent any recurrence of the injuries.”

Rogers said training this summer was the key to staying healthy throughout the season. “I’ve been working hard this summer to strengthen my hips and my ankles and all the little muscles that have been nagging me for a little while,” he said. “But right now I feel 100 percent and ready to play again.”

The only thing left to do now is to prove himself out on the ice. Traverse City is the first step. The Lightning prospects will make the organization’s fifth consecutive appearance at the Traverse City Rookie Tournament, hosted by the Detroit Red Wings. The Lightning team will play against other prospects from the New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings and Atlanta Thrashers. Teams from Columbus, Dallas, Minnesota and St. Louis also will be represented.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for our kids to see where they are against other guys their own age,” Lightning Executive Vice President & General Manager Jay Feaster said. “It’s totally different from training camp.”

Feaster continued, saying that being invited back to an event hosted by the Detroit Red Wings should be viewed as extremely positive in the hockey realm. “I feel that it’s a feather in the cap of the organization that the Wings view us as a valuable member of this tournament,” he said. “It’s a first-class event.”

Rogers hopes to use this tournament to help secure his future with the Bolts, and he’s not the only one looking toward the horizon. Feaster anxiously awaits Rogers’ call up to the NHL level.

“From an organizational standpoint, we want to see him here sooner rather than later,” he said. “If we’re going to have continued success and we’re going to continue to be a playoff team, we have to start developing, particularly defenseman, ourselves. So we want him here as soon as he can make it here.”

The question in everyone’s mind, including Rogers’, is whether or not he can avoid injury.

“That’s probably the biggest thing this year for me,” he said. “I want to improve my game and continue to develop. Hopefully I’ll be a big part of Norfolk and hopefully Tampa Bay one day. I’m just going to try to work on every part of my game and use Traverse City as a good stepping stone for the season to come.

“This year’s a new year and I have to improve.”