TORONTO – Ten years into the NHL career of Joffrey Lupul and it would appear as though a ceiling has not been reached. Instead, at the ripe old age of 30, his performance would suggest that he is only getting better with age.
Lupul has already scored five times this season, giving him 16 goals in 19 regular season games dating back to the 2013 campaign. His career, once legitimately in doubt because of injuries, has only climbed higher in Toronto. Through 116 games as a Leaf, he has scored 50 goals and 111 points, numbers that quash anything he had accomplished in previous stops with the Ducks, Oilers, and Flyers.
So has the seventh overall pick in the 2002 draft reached his ceiling?
"No, no, never," he told the Leaf Report, following practice on a quiet holiday Monday.
For one, Lupul says, his dedication to the craft has improved substantially with time.
Landing in the league as a 19-year-old in Anaheim, "you just have this feeling you made it to the NHL and now you're here and that's kind of where you stop practicing for some reason. That's one thing I've figured out, that even as an old guy on this team you can still work on your skills and get better."
His back-hand, for example, had once been a source of weakness; he had trouble both making and receiving passes. But with due diligence and attention to detail as far as improvement, that subtle aspect has improved to the point that he now has supreme confidence in it.
"Sometimes I look back to when I was younger and just think 'Man, if I would've worked a little harder on this or this or had [skating consultant] Barb Underhill or had the Rapid Shot machine. If I would've done stuff like this when I was younger how much better would I be now?' Maybe not at all, maybe a bit, you never know."
Lupul was forced to confront the state of his career when lingering back injuries nearly put an end to it four years ago. He realized at that precarious stage that his dedication to the game would have to rise to a "new level". He would practice differently, train differently, scrutinize video differently, do everything with greater diligence and attention, all of this with a new team in Toronto.
"When I first came back after the injury I wasn't sure, to be honest, if I was going to be able to do it at the NHL level anymore," said Lupul, who missed 80 games with the Ducks following multiple back surgeries. "It was a long time off and obviously a pretty devastating injury so I didn't know."
Upon his return, Lupul "wanted to see how good of a player I could be in this league because I didn't really know. I knew I could be a solid second line player, but I wanted to see if I could take that jump. A lot of it came because of getting traded here."
Made a Leaf in Feb. 2011, he quickly got the opportunity to take that jump. Short on wingers of his size and caliber, then-head coach Ron Wilson asked Lupul if he could play the left side, running shotgun with Phil Kessel on the top line. "It was an easy decision," Lupul recalled with a laugh. "'Do you want to play with Phil?' 'Sure.'"
The results were career-changing. Thrust into the spotlight of Toronto in a marquee position, Lupul would score nine goals and 18 points alongside Kessel in 28 games, returning the following season with 25 goals and a career-high 67 points in 66 games. He was a staple amongst the league leaders in scoring before a shoulder injury ended his season.
"And then I realized that I could be a top-level player in this league," he said.
Injuries have remained the only hurdle to Lupul entrenching himself in that conversation; he missed all but 16 games last season because of a fractured right forearm and subsequent concussion.
His role, though critical to the Leafs attack, has also shifted. He no longer runs on the top unit alongside Kessel – 24-year-old James van Riemsdyk manning such a spot – nor on the first power-play unit. Instead, Randy Carlyle has aligned him with Nazem Kadri, hoping the two can connect for bursts of offence, thus offering greater balance throughout the lineup.
Lupul has additionally put his own best interests to the side in the interim, back to playing right wing with David Clarkson suspended and Nik Kulemin hurt. "Obviously I prefer left, I think I'm a better player on the left, but we have two right-wingers down right now so it's important that someone fills that role and it's something I take pride to be versatile and do different things."
And though his minutes have dipped, from a career-high of nearly 19 minutes in 2011-12 to about 17 this season, his responsibilities have increased. An alternate captain once more this season, Lupul has been employed by Carlyle in the last minute of periods and late in games to protect leads, something he hadn't done previously.
Now a 10-year veteran, Lupul heads into a Tuesday night affair against the Minnesota Wild with at least a goal in four straight games. He leads the 5-1-0 Leafs in scoring at this early stage in the season and is currently nestled amongst the league leaders with eight points.
Fittingly with age though, those things no longer seem to matter as much.
"Obviously from the day you start playing the Stanley Cup is your goal, but earlier in your career when you're trying to establish yourself ... it was always '30 goals, 30 goals, I want to get 30 goals'," he reflected. "And now I really couldn't care less. Obviously I want to score every game – I love scoring goals – but I just want to do whatever the team needs me to do.
"Earlier in my career I probably used to set goals as far as goals, assists and points. Right now, I just want to do whatever I can to help the team win. Winning the Stanley Cup is the only goal I have now."