It took 363 days, two back surgeries, a blood infection, and months of labourious training before Joffrey Lupul returned to the NHL.
The date was December 5th, 2010, a Sunday evening at the Honda Center in Anaheim with the Ducks playing host to the Coyotes.
Exactly two months later and he was gone – just like that – sent to the Leafs in exchange for Francois Beauchemin. It was the fourth trade of his NHL career. His pride was wounded, his fight questioned, his reputation miles away from what it once was.
Now with a clean bill of health for the first time in years, Lupul is thriving, demonstrating the innate skills and scoring ability which saw him dealt for future Hall-of-Famer Chris Pronger on two separate occasions. The 28-year-old has five goals and ten points through the first nine games, bursting with fury out of the gate alongside linemate Phil Kessel.
His exit from Anaheim has not been forgotten.
"I've never been a guy that's wanted to prove [something] to other people," said Lupul, in conversation with The Leaf Report, "but I think definitely this time I was a little bit surprised and a bit hurt by the trade, just because of the fact that I knew and they knew how much effort and energy and how hard of a road it was back.
"I came back and was kind of just an afterthought there and didn't really get the chance that I felt I deserved. You can't really complain about it too much; it's business. They thought other players were better than me. I look at those players now and I can tell you they're probably not."
Bested for ice-time on many nights by the likes of Jason Blake, Kyle Chipchura, Matt Beleskey, Todd Marchant, and Brandon MacMillan, Lupul can only smile now. In his mind, the Ducks – be it general manager Bob Murray or head coach Randy Carlyle – did not believe he would rediscover the offensive pop which saw him score 28 goals as a second-year player in 2005-2006. But very quickly he has. A full summer of training in Newport Beach, California has the Alberta native in perhaps the best shape of his career – evident in the extra burst of speed he's gained – determined to have a breakout year in Toronto. His confidence has rarely peaked as high as it is now.
"It's definitely been awhile," he said. "Probably never."
Before the season began, Lupul brashly declared to The Leaf Report that he was targeting 30 goals this season, an idea that he believes caused some to scoff. "I threw that number out there because I think I can do it," he said. "I think a lot of people thought that I couldn't and was maybe crazy. And there's obviously a long way to go, but I've had a ton of opportunities. I've got five goals now and I feel I could have a lot more."
Injuries – which began in the 2009-2010 season, causing him to miss the final 52 games and the first 28 the following year – fueled whatever doubts may have existed in the past – his last full season was 2008-2009 (79 games) – but healthy and confident this season, Lupul is aiming high.
"I don't doubt my skills or my work ethic or anything like that," he said. "I think a lot of people just look at point totals from the past couple years and rightfully so, but I'm back now 100% healthy and just like I said being healthy has given me a lot of confidence."
Even without summer-time acquisition and playmaker Tim Connolly in the mix during the first few weeks, Lupul and Kessel managed to produce in spades; the two have combined for 15 goals and 26 points. The chemistry they've established has been one of the more pleasant surprises early this fall.
"I think he's taken his game to a new level," said Lupul of his 24-year-old linemate. "I'm not too familiar with him as a player before I got here, but I know that he had had some real up and down times here. But since I've been here it seems that he's played pretty well every night. A lot of that has nothing to do with me; it has a lot to do with him just taking the next step in his career and wanting to be a real dominant player.
"I think on that line I can also provide some goals, which I think maybe with guys he was playing with before he really had to carry the brunt of the scoring. If I can chip in with a goal here, a big goal in a big situation it can definitely take some pressure off him."
Then with Anaheim, Brian Burke was responsible for parting with Lupul in the first of two Pronger transactions, sending him to Edmonton in the summer of 2006 – the second involved Philadelphia in 2007. He knew the player and person well. The club was confident when they brought him to Toronto – alongside Jake Gardiner – that he could, if healthy, produce as he has this season. Probably as fit as they come in the Toronto dressing room, his professionalism also stands out as an asset within the organization.
The chip on his shoulder certainly lingers, but Lupul is ready to look forward.
"Right now, it feels good to play on a winning team and be a guy that's contributing a lot of points," he concluded. "I'm thankful I got the trade to here and have gotten an opportunity right from day one and I feel like for the most part have made the most of it. I'm not going to take anything for granted; it's a great opportunity and they don't come along too often. It seems that Phil and I have something going – some chemistry – and I'm going to work everyday to make the most of it."