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Lupul's maturation makes him a leader, star

by Mike Brophy

TORONTO -- Had Joffrey Lupul not gone down with a season-ending shoulder injury last season, there is a very good chance he might have been the NHL's first team all-star left wing.

Joffrey Lupul
Left Wing - TOR
Goals: - | Assists: - | Pts: -
Shots: - | +/-: -
After all, at the time he separated his shoulder against the Boston Bruins on March 6, which caused him to miss the Toronto Maple Leafs' final 16 games, Lupul was tied for sixth in the NHL in scoring 67 points. In his absence, the Maple Leafs went 5-9-2, causing them to fall out of the race for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

When the NHL's all-star teams were announced, the New Jersey Devils' Ilya Kovalchuk -- who spent much of the season playing right wing -- was named the first team left wing, and the Phoenix Coyotes' Ray Whitney was named to the second team.

Poof! Lupul's chance at being named to the all-star team went up in smoke.

Lupul said he never thought about his individual situation when he was injured. It was all about the team.

"I was disappointed I got hurt because we were still in the playoff race when I went down," Lupul said. "I don't really think about personal achievements that much. I mean, it was a real honor to play in the All-Star Game last year and to be an alternate captain and to get to do a lot of fun things that weekend. But at the end of the day being a first-team all-star, I suppose that would be one of those things you look back on at the end of your career and think that was pretty cool."

Lupul thought about it for a minute and added, "Do you get anything for being a first-team all-star? If you get a car, I'll take it all back."

With the way Lupul played last season prior to being hurt coupled with the way he has played this season when he has been healthy, a strong case could be made that he is the best left wing in the NHL.

He was on his way to putting up career-best numbers prior to separating his shoulder. Then this season, after breaking his arm in Toronto's third game, causing him to miss 25 games, he returned with three goals and four points in his first two games. Following a two-game suspension, Lupul had five goals and 10 points in his next five games before sustaining a concussion. Having finished the season with 11 goals and 18 points in 16 games, Lupul is healthy heading into the playoffs.

After seven seasons of hinting at potential stardom, Lupul had arrived. Not only was he the Maple Leafs' best and most valuable player, he had arrived as a leader. All of this from a player picked  seventh by the Anaheim Ducks in the 2002 NHL Draft but had become a journeyman never able to stick with one team for very long.

Lupul never ducks his past. He admits there were times in his career when he didn't appreciate his opportunity, and only a serious back injury that limited him to 59 games over two seasons gave him a different perspective. Toronto coach Randy Carlyle had Lupul with Anaheim and said he sees quite a different individual now.

"I just think he's a much more mature athlete with a much better understanding of where he's at in his career," Carlyle said. "I don't think he takes anything for granted anymore. As a young player, looking back on my youth, you felt like you were going to play forever and this was going to be a merry life. Then all of a sudden you get traded once and it's not such a great thing. Then it might happen again. You go through your life experiences and the life of a hockey player has its ups and downs. He has had some injuries that I think have really shaken to his core, that he's fortunate to be playing the game he loves, and he's being well paid. I don't think he's taking anything for granted anymore. He's here to make an impression and he's made an impression on this organization and this hockey club."

Dion Phaneuf is the Maple Leafs captain, but Lupul is every bit as much a leader on a team that has found its way back into the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Lupul said he never was cornered by anybody suggesting he was letting his career slip away. Rather, he said the back injury coupled with a natural maturing process put everything in focus for him. He added having Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer as teammates set an example for him in his early years in Anaheim left an impact.

"For me, I want to keep growing as a player and also as a person," Lupul said. "Every day I'm trying to learn and to be better. In the past couple of years, since I got to Toronto, I have had a new commitment to the off-ice aspect of the game, whether it's training, watching video, shooting pucks, doing anything extra that I can. It gives you a certain level of confidence when you line up for a game and you look across at the guy you are playing against and you can say, 'I know I have put in more work.' Obviously I have some natural skills, so when you get it in your head you have that and you have put in more work than the other guy, it makes you feel like you are a step ahead."

The Maple Leafs certainly are going to need that extra step in their series against the Bruins.

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