TORONTO – Joffrey Lupul has worn almost as many different labels as NHL sweaters during his career.
From top-flight prospect to hometown disappointment to hard-luck Duck, the former first-round pick has travelled a winding road. And the most recent turn might be the most surprising of all—he’s exceeding expectations with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
With nearly 70 per cent of the NHL season in the books, Lupul found himself sitting fifth in league scoring entering play Tuesday. Those kind of heights are unheard of for a player that has never finished higher than 103rd in NHL scoring and who, at age 28, is only 18 months removed from having serious concerns about his career.
Despite all of that, Lupul is taking his success in stride.
“I’m definitely more of a veteran player now and you want to make as much out of these opportunities as possible,” he said in a recent interview. “When you come here and get the opportunity to play with a guy like (Phil) Kessel you want to make the most of it. It’s been good for me the whole way through.”
Lupul has piled up points in the past, just not at the game’s top level. The seventh overall pick from 2002 finished second in Western Hockey League scoring during his draft year—getting edged 107-106 by Nathan Barrett.
A quick look back at that scoring chart is instructive. Lupul, a former star with the Medicine Hat Tigers, is the only player among the WHL’s top-10 scorers from 2001-02 who went on to forge a meaningful NHL career.
Success certainly isn’t guaranteed.
“It’s a different league altogether,” he said. “And it’s hard to predict for scouts and general managers—there’s obviously some can’t-miss prospects—there’s a lot of guys you don’t know if their game is going to translate. It’s a whole new commitment coming to the NHL.
“You’ve got to be a lot more dedicated to hockey.”
A new level of dedication might be the best thing that came out of a health scare that cost Lupul roughly a year of playing time. As a member of the Anaheim Ducks, Lupul developed a mysterious blood infection following back surgery that left him bed-ridden for weeks.
He would eventually return to the lineup Dec. 5, 2010, and found himself traded to Toronto less than two months later. It was the fourth time he’d been dealt during his seven-year NHL career—Chris Pronger went the other way in two of those deals—and even the man responsible for making it happen admitted he was rolling the dice.
“There’s a human element in all of this,” Leafs general manager Brian Burke said at the time. “You bet on people every time you make a trade. If this were just buying cars or buying livestock it would be a lot easier. But we’re betting on human beings.
“I bet on Joffrey Lupul because of his character and his skill level and I believe he thinks he has something to prove.”
So far, it looks like a great move for the Leafs. Lupul came over with prospect Jake Gardiner—now a regular for Toronto—in exchange for defenceman Francois Beauchemin and a conditional pick.
Lupul found almost immediate chemistry with Kessel and racked up 31 goals and 76 points in his first 84 games wearing a Maple Leafs sweater. Last month, he became an all-star for the first time and ended up playing a starring role during the weekend in Ottawa after being named an alternate captain.
He credits an intense workout program for the run of success.
“I came back and played last year and I felt all right, but definitely not 100 per cent,” said Lupul. “So to have this summer and a lot of time off and to be able to get back in shape, do some different training and just figure out what was working for me to get myself back 100 per cent, I mean that was key.
“I came in here knowing I was 100 per cent and feeling a lot better than I did last year and automatically that gives you some confidence right there.”
It’s been quite a ride.
If anything, Lupul seems to have finally found the right situation at the right time in his career tosucceed. Labelled a disappointment after being acquired by the hometown Edmonton Oilers early in his career, he’s much more confident and mature in his second tour of duty with a Canadian NHL team.
“This is the centre of the hockey universe,” said Lupul. “It’s fun. It seems every game is a big game no matter who you’ve got coming in to town. There’s some other storyline or something going on. When we go on the road, the building’s half Leaf fans sometimes—I mean it’s a fun place to play.
“Every time you come to the rink there’s something going on. You’re not going to get bored here, that’s for sure.”