TORONTO - Veterans in professional sports commonly view training camp with about as much enthusiasm as they would the recovery from a torn knee ligament.
Camp days can be monotonous, with no real flow coming until the end, when all of the hopefuls have been sent home.
Maple Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul, however, couldn’t be happier to be playing games in September that have no bearing on the standings.
Lupul, who turns 28 on Friday, missed all of camp last year with the Anaheim Ducks after developing an infection in his back following surgery. In 2009, back issues kept him from participating in much of camp.
“It’s great just to get up to speed and get on the same page as everyone else so you’re not playing catch-up,” Lupul said. “It’s a great opportunity for me (to play on the top line with centre Tim Connolly and Phil Kessel). Nothing is going to happen over night, but we’re confident and feel we can make it work.”
If it does work, it means Lupul will be healthy and likely threaten his career-best of 25 goals, scored in 2008-09.
Though Lupul has been a Leaf since February, he is looking at this season as the continuation of a fresh start. The Alberta native said there were several low points as he tried to recover from his back trouble and two surgeries. He played in just 23 games for the Ducks two years ago and totalled 54 with Anaheim and Toronto last season.
Despite weeks of being hooked up to an intravenous line in 2010 so he could get strong doses of antibiotics, Lupul was frustrated and worried when doctors could not determine a cause of the infection.
“It was in the bone, right where they removed the disc (from his back),” Lupul said. “It was pretty rare and it made it a little scary that no one could quite put their finger on it. They just knew that when they took blood, there was something wrong.
“I was worried about if it would go away. As an athlete, you’re trying to keep a positive attitude, but it’s just human nature that’s going to creep into your head, that maybe you have played your last game.”
Lupul did recover, and returned to the Ducks lineup last December. Now, the pressure is on for him to create some offensive magic with Kessel and Connolly.
How soon will we know whether the trio will be effective as a top line?
“I would say 10-15 games (in the regular season) is a pretty reasonable period,” Leafs senior advisor Cliff Fletcher said as he watched the team practise on Wednesday. “After that, you will know whether there is a match or not.”
Lupul knows Connolly has the potential to be the set-up man to Kessel’s trigger. He doesn’t mind the idea of doing some spade work.
“Ideally I would like to be the first guy in on the forecheck and get in there and try to create some loose pucks and things like that,” Lupul said.
“In the neutral zone, we want to get the puck to Phil as much as possible. That’s probably where he is most dangerous, when he can get the puck with a head of steam. We know these things, now it’s a matter of working and making sure we have someone at the net.”
If Lupul loses his spot on the first line, he guaranteed it won’t be because of a lack of effort.
“You don’t know how often these chances are going to come by,” Lupul said. “I know I’m getting a good opportunity here to play 18-20 minutes a night. You don’t want to start the year not playing well that well and give the coach a reason to replace you. You don’t want to waste it.”