DALLAS - There was a joke going around back during the Toronto Maple Leafs training camp about how what was projected to be their top line could well be known as The Masterton Trio.
After all, all three members -- Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and Tim Connolly -- have reasonable claims to the Masterton Trophy, past or present, given how their histories mesh with what’s become the NHL’s comeback award.
Kessel won the award in 2007 after testicular cancer cost him 12 games as a rookie with the Boston Bruins.
Lupul and Connolly’s injury woes, meanwhile, are well known, with both missing almost a full season with near career-threatening ailments in recent years.
Of the three, however, Lupul’s story is the most compelling and really one of the most surprising and inspiring ones leaguewide so far this season.
His former team, the Anaheim Ducks, basically gave him up in February to get out from under his salary after he missed almost a full year to a back injury that turned into a serious infection that kept him bedridden for months.
Lupul’s first game back came on Dec. 5 of last year, and it was a difficult transition given the weight he had lost (nearly 30 pounds) and time he had missed.
“I was a bit nervous,” he recalled. “It almost felt like my first game in the NHL. I wasn’t sure how I was going to perform. When I got back in Anaheim, I didn’t really feel like I had a spot on the team. After being out so long, other guys step in, the coach becomes confident in other players, and it was a tough situation altogether.
“You’re trying to get your game back but you’re only playing 10 minutes a night. It was tough for me.”
Twenty-six games later, the Ducks had seen enough and, already heavy on right wingers, were convinced he couldn’t fill a left wing spot on a winning team.
So they sent the last two years of his contract (at $4.25-million a season) to the Leafs along with Jake Gardiner in exchange for Francois Beauchemin, a deal many said at the time had far more to do with the young defenceman than the recovering winger.
Fast forward nine months, however, and Lupul is suddenly one of the NHL’s leading scorers, sitting tied for third with 26 points and tied for seventh with 11 goals in the first 22 games.
He’s been a big reason why Toronto’s in playoff position, taking the focus off of Kessel on their line, winning puck battles down low and, mostly, proving a lot of his doubters wrong.
“Now to be here and playing on the first line and playing over 20 minutes on a lot of these nights is probably not a situation I thought I’d be in,” Lupul said. “But at the same time, I worked really hard in coming back and I’ve always been confident in my abilities.
“Chances [like this]don’t come around all that often and it’s definitely a spot I want to stay.”
Lupul was asked if this is the highpoint of his career -- one that has seen him go from a seventh overall pick by the Ducks in 2002 to traded not once but four times by age 27 as he dropped from 53 points as a sophomore to just 28 the following season -- and he allowed that, from a personal standpoint, it probably was.
Team success, however, is what he really wants.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about winning games,” he said. “If I end the year with however many points, in the top 20 of the league, and we’re not in the playoffs, what have you really accomplished?
“Obviously it looks good when you look back at your career and go through the stat sheet, but if you’re on the first line of a hockey team, your job is to be one of the key guys that contributes and gets that team in the playoffs. So that’s our mindset.
“Sure it’d be great if Phil scores 50 goals, but I think he’ll tell you the same thing. Our job is to try to help lead the team to the playoffs.”
On pace for a 97-point season, the Leafs are at the moment on course to get there. They’re one of the highest scoring teams in the league, have one of the top power plays and Lupul has been a very big part of that.
So when the Leafs head into Anaheim this weekend and he gets a shot at his former team for the first time since that trade, it’ll be a big moment -- for the player and the franchise.
The Ducks are down, Lupul is up and that deal has become one of the bigger wins for GM Brian Burke so far in Toronto.