TORONTO – Coach Randy Carlyle expects Joffrey Lupul to return to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ lineup with a bang Saturday night.
“Well, he better score 100 goals,” a smiling Carlyle deadpanned following Friday’s practice, drawing laughter from the assembled media. “That’s what he’s paid to do.
“He’s paid to make contributions to the offence.”
Carlyle was kidding, of course, but Lupul will suit up for Toronto when it hosts the Winnipeg Jets. It will be his first action since suffering a fractured forearm in a 5-2 road win over Pittsburgh on Jan. 23.
Lupul will be expected to give Toronto an offensive boost. The 29-year-old native of Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., enjoyed his best offensive season last year, registering 67 points (25 goals, 42 assists) in 66 games with the Leafs.
However, Lupul has much more modest goals.
“To make an impact,” Lupul said. “There’s obviously going to be a little bit of rust and things like that, but I’m definitely looking to go in and make an impact.
“Hopefully the feeling-out period won’t be long. I’m not expecting it to be.”
Lupul’s return couldn’t come at a better time for the Leafs.
Toronto has dropped a season-high four straight following Thursday night’s 3-1 home loss to Pittsburgh. And while the Leafs are seventh in the Eastern Conference, Winnipeg could overtake them with a win Saturday.
Last season, Toronto appeared destined for the playoffs before a stretch of 10 losses in 11 games resulted in the dismissal of coach Ron Wilson as the Leafs missed the post-season for a seventh straight year.
“This is a different group and we were built differently right from training camp,” Carlyle said. “The way we lost (Thursday) night can really tear at your soul.
“What we’ve tried to do is point out the positives, we’re going to have to correct some of the negatives that are taking place out on the ice but overall we did a lot more good things than we did bad things and still gave ourselves a chance. Games are going to be tight, these are all knuckle-biters and are going to be that way all the way through.”
Lupul skated on a line Friday with Nazem Kadri and Nikolai Kulemin but Carlyle said it’s not a given that’s where he’d line up against Winnipeg.
“That’s an option but he might go back with (Tyler) Bozak and (Phil) Kessel,” Carlyle said. “It just gives us another option and those are good decisions you have to make.
“We know when a player has missed an extended period of time it’s not going to be easy to jump right back in and expect him to have a three-goal night. Just be himself, be Joffrey Lupul, be a good teammate, work hard, play the system and the other stuff will take care of itself.”
To make room for Lupul, Toronto dealt centre David Steckel to Anaheim for right-winger Ryan Lasch and a 2014 seventh-round draft pick,. Steckel had an assist in 13 games this season while Lasch, from Lake Forest, Calif., is currently playing in the Swedish Elite League with the Vaxjo Lakers but is expected to join the AHL Marlies.
Lupul said the prospect of playing on a line with Kadri, Toronto’s second-leading scorer, was exciting.
“He creates a lot of chances and draws a lot of penalties,” Lupul said. “He’s still just scratching the surface as to how good he can be.”
Lupul was injured when hit by teammate Dion Phaneuf’s shot on a power play while standing in front of Pittsburgh’s net. It came days after Lupul signed a five-year, US$26.25-million contract extension.
“It (the forearm) is probably not 100 per cent, it’s not like it was before it was broken but it’s at a point where the doctor thinks it’s safe to play,” Lupul said. “It feels a lot better than it did a couple of weeks ago and it’s fairly strong.
“I’m not going to be out there protecting the arm or doing things differently. It won’t be in the back of my mind at all. I’ll be ready.”
Lupul looked ready Friday, resuming his usual spot in front of the net with pucks flying in from the point or slot.
“Obviously he’s a great player who brings skill, grit, he’ll work hard for us,” said Kessel. “You saw last year that he had a great year and it’s nice to have a guy like that back in the lineup.”
Kessel said the mounting losses don’t have Leafs thinking back to last year’s struggles.
“Honestly we don’t think about it at all,” Kessel said. “There’s no panic here, we’re still in a playoff spot.
“There’s 20 games left and if we keep competing and playing hard we’ll be fine.”
Carlyle’s confidence is buoyed by Toronto having played well in three of its four losses—the exception being a 5-2 road decision to Winnipeg on Tuesday. On Thursday night, the Leafs led 1-0 with under eight minutes remaining before Pittsburgh rallied for the victory after beating the Leafs 5-4 in a shootout just five nights earlier.
And on March 7, Boston needed an empty-net goal to cement a 4-2 win over Toronto.
“It’s not fun when you have one point out of a possible eight in the last four games,” Carlyle said. “But again we played some of our better hockey games in two of them.
“The game we played in Winnipeg we’re not proud of at all, that was a bad game for us . . . the bottom line is if we can continue to push for a higher level of play and some individual efforts, you know, we’ll be all right as long as we continue to work hard and stay with it.”