TORONTO – A grin flashes on his face as he rewinds the clock.
He was a youthful 22 back then, a top draft pick loaded with talent, a rising star in the sunny skies of Orange County.
Joffrey Lupul had it all in a hurry for the Anaheim Ducks that year. The Fort Saskatchewan native and 7th overall pick (2002) scored 28 goals and posted 53 points in what was just his second NHL season (2005-2006).
"I think at that point in my career I was a young guy just trying to come into the league and have as much fun as I could possibly and didn't take hockey quite as serious as I do now," Lupul reflected with TSN.ca in a lengthy conversation at Mastercard Centre. "I was just there and having fun, joking around and going out and playing the game."
Lupul is an admittedly different player these days in Toronto, "a lot better hockey player now" as he described it. The 28-year-old has evolved into a bigger, stronger, and smarter version of his former self, one who set a new career-high for points (54) on Saturday with a pair of assists against the Senators.
The road began to wind rather turbulently for Lupul after that momentous year in Anaheim. Trades, on-ice struggles, injuries and road-blocks ensued. And without ever enduring the grind that some players take to make it to the NHL – not unlike many high draft picks – Lupul was not fully prepared for the twists his career would take.
"You kind of get ahead yourself a little bit in your career thinking about 'Oh, next year I'm going to get this many goals' and that's good too, it's good to think like that, but I think at some parts early in my career I skipped a couple steps," he conceded. "I thought it might be easy a little bit."
The naturally talented are often at a disadvantage when it comes to the work ethic required to succeed at the greatest heights of any given endeavor. Gliding by on the strength of their ability, the need to strive beyond all limits is rarely, if ever needed. In Lupul's case, it was the weight room that was almost an afterthought, an extra-curricular activity others suggested, but one generally ignored.
"Now I come to the rink everyday – whether it's a game or practice – with a purpose, to get better at something or stronger in the weight room or take care of my body so eight years from now hopefully I can still be playing," he said. "Back then, something like that would never even cross my mind, it was just living for that particular day and go from there."
He shudders at the rash of injuries – most recently a troubling back problem that knocked him out of the league for nearly a calendar year – comprehending what could have been prevented had he taken a greater interest in the finer points of preparation.
"And not to say that I wouldn't have had them anyway, but maybe not," he said of the injuries. "Now I'm working everyday and trying to do some extra stuff for injury prevention, just to get the most out of my career as possible. With the injury, this is almost like a second chance for me."
The unfortunate necessitated change, forced him to pay attention, and finally steered him toward the training that left him in the best shape of his NHL career this past summer.
"I don't think twice when I come to the rink and say 'Ah, not going to do this today because I don't feel like it, it's just what I do today."
He looks in admiration at the sustained greatness of former teammate and current Ducks winger Teemu Selanne, who at age 41 is on pace for 29 goals and 79 points.
"That's actually a great example," Lupul concurred. "He's one guy that I played with that does the work everyday. Not to say he's in there squatting 300 pounds or anything, but he's figured out what it takes for him to be successful and get the most out of his body.
"It's different for every guy and I think that's something you have to figure out. Some guys like to go in there and lift a ton and other guys like to do sprints and explosive stuff. It's just taken me awhile to find out what makes me feel the best."
It's not unusual for Lupul to spot a young player with the same mentality he once had, not quite comprehending the level of commitment the game entails. He's hesitant to force-feed the advice, more comfortable setting an example with his actions.
"...you come in just assuming you're going to have a really long career in the NHL and not thinking about anything ever going wrong," he concluded. "And then as your career goes and you have an off-year or you have some bad injuries or you're traded or friends of yours are traded, all sorts of things happen, and those are just experiences that you pick up from day to day and year to year that make you just a better player and in the end probably a better person too just experiencing as much as possible."