TORONTO – Joffrey Lupul knows he shouldn’t have pushed it.
When the Toronto Maple Leafs winger with a history of lower-back issues felt the area tighten up before training camp started, he acknowledged rest would have been the best approach. When he tried to skate through it, the spasms cost him a week of time on the ice with teammates.
But after Lupul got through his first practice Wednesday, he was confident that mistake won’t set him back too much as he tried to prepare for the start of the regular season.
“Obviously not the way I wanted to start the camp, but just happy everything’s feeling better now,” Lupul said. “We’re taking it slow. It’s obviously not the same way you’d probably treat an injury in the regular season. It’s good that way. I guess time’s on my side.”
Barring a flare-up of back problems, Lupul is expected to get some pre-season games in before the Leafs visit the Montreal Canadiens for opening night Oct. 1. Starting with Thursday’s game at the Ottawa Senators, they have six left, so there are plenty of opportunities.
But Lupul’s focus is on getting ready for games that matter. In that regard, Wednesday’s practice—which lasted almost two full hours—shed some light on what Toronto’s forward lines could look like.
He skated on left wing with centre Tyler Bozak and right-winger Phil Kessel, a line that spent limited time together last season because the 29-year-old Lupul played just 16 games due to a broken arm and concussion.
James van Riemsdyk and David Clarkson skated together, though Nazem Kadri seems more likely to centre that line than Joe Colborne once things get underway. David Bolland between Mason Raymond and Nikolai Kulemin is also a possibility for the third line.
“I’m not exactly sure who’s going to be playing with who,” Lupul said. “I’m sure we’ll be mixed and matched a little throughout the year, but I think it’s a good mixture of speed and size. We’ve added some grit, and hopefully for some guys, some experience.”
Some size was lacking from Leafs practice, given that enforcers Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren didn’t skate with teammates. Orr, who has missed the start of camp with a leg bone bruise, skated before practice and could join team workouts over the weekend, according to coach Randy Carlyle.
McLaren is out at least two weeks with a fractured right pinky finger.
Lupul is fortunate that he doesn’t have to sit out that length of time with back problems, and Carlyle expects him to be available for pre-season duty soon. After playing the Senators, the Leafs have a home-and-home series with the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday and Sunday, which gives the team and Lupul some options.
“Hopefully the back spasm issues are behind him,” Carlyle said. “He’s moving much better, felt much better and we think he’s an option for us in the next couple exhibition games.”
Joking that he wanted to mimic former NBA star Allen Iverson’s famous rant about practices not being games, Lupul isn’t stressed about coming out strong whenever he makes his pre-season debut.
“Everyone’s focus is on Oct. 1, mine included,” he said. “This isn’t the time to really push through an injury, and we’re not treating it like we would if it was the regular season or playoffs or anything right now. It’s just making sure that everything’s 100 per cent. We’re being a lot more cautious than typically you would.”
Once games count, don’t expect Lupul to be noticeably more cautious because of the various injuries that have at times derailed his career.
“Obviously you want to try and stay healthy, but you’ve also got to stick with what got you there and what makes you successful,” Lupul said. “I think it would be a mistake to stay you can’t go to the front of the net or can’t get in the way of pucks or anything like that. I’m hoping to just have a little better luck, and we’ll see.”
Carlyle acknowledged there’s “probably some merit” to the idea that Lupul goes into high-risk areas, but he’s not demanding change.
“I wouldn’t say it has to be toned down,” Carlyle said. “I think that he has to pick and choose, maybe, a little bit more, I guess, cautiously in some situations. I think what happened with him was more the fact that he was frustrated with his injuries and then trying to come back and make an impact right away.”
This time, Lupul can ease back in. He went full tilt in the first half of Wednesday’s practice but was held out of the second half as planned.
“At this stage in the season you’re taking it slow and make sure you’re feeling good for Oct. 1,” Lupul said. “There’s still plenty of time till opening day.”
Notes: Troy Bodie missed practice with an oblique strain, according to Carlyle. … The Leafs cut down to 34 players in camp by assigning forward Tyler Biggs and defenceman Jesse Blacker to the AHL’s Marlies.