There were many pundits out there who saw Joffrey Lupul as merely an expensive salary dump when he landed in Toronto in February, a high-priced player coming off a terrible injury who the Toronto Maple Leafs took on as a way to land prospect defenceman Jake Gardiner.
Twenty-five games into his tenure as a Leaf, however, Lupul has found a role, scoring eight goals and adding eight assists while playing on a line with Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak.
He's also been one of the few Leafs to offer much of anything on the power play since the all-star break, out scoring everyone save for Kessel and Dion Phaneuf on the man advantage despite playing five fewer games.
Those may not be $4.25-million worth of contributions, but on a team that struggled to score in the first half of the season (and lost a lot of games because of it), Lupul's presence has helped of late.
And after missing a full calendar year with back issues and a subsequent infection that threatened his career, Lupul says he isn't taking much for granted these days.
"When I was looking at myself and I was 170 pounds, I thought wow, how am I going to gain all this muscle back," he said of his recovery from being bedridden at times between December, 2009, and December, 2010. "But it went pretty well for me.
"Everything since I've been here has been great. The guys, the city, the team's played great, so I have no complaints at all. My only thing right now is I want to make sure that what's happening now is not a fluke, for myself and for the team. Go have a good off-season and come back next year and be ready to carry on like we've played the past 25 games."
Lupul's weight is back up to 210 pounds, the highest it's been in his NHL career, and he has been more involved from a physical standpoint than he has during other stops in his career. The Leafs, meanwhile, are 14-6-5 with Lupul in the lineup, one of the better teams in the NHL.
In that time, they've scored 69 goals, roughly 2.8 a game, far beyond what they managed before that.
"He's really strong on the boards so he keeps a lot of plays alive," coach Ron Wilson said. "He can also finish. He's probably more of a finisher than a playmaker, but he's had to kind of add add the playmaker part to it. When we've needed big goals, he finds a way to do it.
"He's really good in front of the net. He's in general starting to play his way into game shape after missing almost a full year. It's been probably a tough season for him, but I think he's playing his best hockey now."
Lupul also appears to have cemented his spot on the left wing, with Kessel playing the right side and the centre to be determined.
"Hopefully he doesn't have any more health issues going forward and we don't anticipate that," Wilson said. "Next year when we come to training camp, if all things will be the same, he'll be playing probably in the same position, off wing, and it'll give him a little bit more time.
"There are things he can do this summer to get even better. It's a little different playing the off wing. There are different shooting angles, one-time shots, and things like that, but he's getting better at that. The big difference is handling pucks along the boards in your own end when you're on your off side. It's a little bit more difficult."
The Leafs won't have a morning skate tomorrow when they face the Washington Capitals at the Air Canada Centre, the continuation of a trend the past couple weeks as Wilson tries to squeeze in as much rest as he can for his players. I'll have more on tomorrow's game later tonight, but until then, here's what else Wilson had to say today: