TORONTO – I wonder how much Joffrey Lupul knew.
The last time we spoke, on the morning of Feb. 4, 2016, he was surprisingly open about discussing the possible end of his NHL career. I thought he’d make a good feature subject after fighting through an incredible number of injuries to reach 700 games in a rapidly evolving league.
As it turned out, he’d only dress for that game plus one more with the Toronto Maple Leafs before disappearing entirely. The team announced on Feb. 25 that he’d been shut down for the remainder of the season because of sports hernia surgery and didn’t include him in the group photo on locker clean-out day in April.
Now 19 months later, he’s scarcely been quoted at all since our story ran the day after his last NHL game in Ottawa.
“Some days I feel good and I think that I’m a good player out there, and other days my body maybe won’t let me do as much as I’d like,” Lupul told me then. “Those are the days you kind of think about how much time you really have left. … Obviously I have [two] years left in my contract. I want to keep playing – I still love playing – but you never know what’s going to happen.
“I’m just trying to enjoy it as much as I can.”
My mind immediately jumped back to that conversation when I saw Lupul hint that he’s capable of passing a physical on Sunday night. More pointedly, his (since-deleted) Instagram comment said, “They cheat, everyone lets them.”
While there’s much we could infer from those five words, the most relevant aspect of this story is whether Lupul wants to play now, whether he truly believes he’s healthy and whether the Leafs are standing in his way.
If so, there could be ramifications.
The 33-year-old has the right to a second opinion on his failed medical from a physician not associated with the team. That’s part of the grievance process available to him under the collective bargaining agreement.
So far he hasn’t taken that option.
As recently as August 2016, Lupul left those in attendance at his 10th annual charity golf event in Edmonton believing he intended to resume his career. A month later he failed his physical before Leafs training camp and went underground all season. He didn’t hold another golf tournament this summer.
One common misconception is that the Leafs benefitted from having the Lupul ($5.25-million) and Nathan Horton ($5.3-million) contracts on long-term injured reserve last year. While that theoretically allowed them to spend more than $10.5-million above the $73-million cap, they didn’t end up using any of the extra space.
No, the larger issue at play here is essentially a personal one. Has the organization dealt with Lupul unfairly? If deemed healthy, he probably would have spent last season in the American Hockey League. Instead, they basically paid him the $5.25-million he was owed to stay away.
The Leafs are on the hook for another $3.75 million in 2017-18 before Lupul becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1. By then, he will be 34 and likely two and a half years removed from his last competitive game.
Former teammates Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak both remain in touch with him and believe he’s not yet ready to retire.
“I think he wants to play hockey and I think he believes he still has the ability to play hockey,” said Bozak. “It’s something I think he’s striving for.”
Lupul endured a couple lengthy layoffs during his NHL career because of injuries, including sitting out an entire year with the Anaheim Ducks after developing a rare blood infection following back surgery. Still, he rebounded to average nearly a point per game over a 100-game stretch with the Leafs and earn a five-year, $26.25-million extension on Jan. 20, 2013.
He was basically used as a third-liner when last seen in 2015-16 – the first season for head coach Mike Babcock and general manager Lou Lamoriello in Toronto – and it’s clear the organization has basically disavowed him at this point.
“I don’t know nothing about Lupes, really,” Babcock said Monday. “You know I just wish him well in whatever he’s doing.”
Based on his Instagram account, it appears that he’s continued to pursue two noted passions: Music and travel. Over the summer, Lupul also posted a workout video where he was pushing a sled loaded with weights.
What’s known is that he rented an apartment in Manhattan last year that belonged to former Rangers forward Derick Brassard in addition to spending time at his off-season home in Newport Beach, Calif.
During our February 2016 interview, it was clear that Lupul had thought a fair bit about what his post-hockey life might look like. He spoke about golfing more and starting a family. He must have sensed the end could be coming soon in Toronto.
However, he didn’t seem anxious for more time to pursue his many outside interests. He’s simply described them as an outlet to offset the demands of being a pro athlete.
“Some guys it’s just hockey, hockey, hockey all day,” said Lupul. “I’ve had times like that in my career and it hasn’t been enjoyable for me. It’s been very stressful. So there’s certain things that you have to do, that you have to find outside the game to relax you. For me it’s music and travelling and things like that.
“Yeah, I’ve got some other interests, but nothing I’m as passionate about as hockey.”
If that’s still the case, he certainly has the right to try and play the game. But he’s going to have to force the issue far beyond the realm of social media to get back on the ice this season.