The Joffrey Lupul era may be coming to an end in Toronto.
At least the first-line-team-leader-Joffrey-Lupul era, that is.
As noted time and time again, Lupul suffered a fractured forearm in just his third game of the season when he took a Dion Phaneuf slapshot to the arm while standing in front of the net. The good news for the Toronto Maple Leafs all-star is that he is now able to take part in team skates again along with James Reimer.
Unfortunately for Lupul, his injury came at the worst possible time. James van Riemsdyk had been struggling while Lupul was in the Leafs’ lineup early on but began to heat up as soon as he went down. van Riemsdyk notched a goal and three assists in the same game against the Pittsburgh Penguins and has yet to slow down; he leads the team in goals (11) and is tied for the team lead in points with 15. The player he is tied with ─ Phil Kessel ─ just so happens to be the same player that Lupul managed to find plenty of success with last season.
However, with Lupul’s injury, the dynamic duo of him and Kessel hasn’t had much of a chance to succeed this season. Lupul’s injury gave van Riemsdyk the chance to prove that he deserves a spot on the top line and he has taken complete advantage of it.
Kessel has helped van Riemsdyk find the back of the net over and over again this season while van Riemsdyk has done the same for Kessel. If hitting the goal post counted as a goal, both players’ point totals would be through the roof considering how much iron Kessel has hit this season.
As mentioned, this isn’t the first time Kessel has found success alongside a prominent NHL player. He and Lupul spent the vast majority of the 2011-2012 campaign on the same line before Lupul went down with an injury unrelated to the arm issue he is currently suffering from. During their time together, Kessel and Lupul scored at a point-per-game pace, making them crucial to any success the Leafs hoped to have.
Now with van Riemsdyk and Kessel clicking, though, we have to wonder if Lupul’s time as a first line player alongside Kessel has come to an end. We must remember that Lupul has appeared in just three games this season but that doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t examine the chances of him returning as a top scorer for the Leafs. With Lupul’s return date still unclear, time remains for van Riemsdyk to further solidify his spot in the Leafs’ lineup.
Even once Lupul is ready to return, head coach Randy Carlyle will surely be reluctant to throw the 29-year-old right back into the top-six. Even if it’s just for one game, he will need time to get up to the pace of the NHL once again. This will further extend the time van Riemsdyk will have to make an even larger impression on the Maple Leafs’ coaching staff.
Let’s assume van Riemsdyk’s production doesn’t slow down and he continues on the 29-goal, 40-point pace he is currently playing at. If that is the case, there would be no reason to drop him from the top line no matter how well Lupul is playing. Stick with what has been working, which is the van Riemsdyk and Kessel duo.
Further damaging Lupul’s chances at reclaiming his top spot from van Riemsdyk is the fact that this season is only 48 games long. He has already missed 15 games and nobody is entirely sure when he will suit up again. By the time he returns we could already be halfway through the season, leaving Lupul just 24 games to get back to the level he was at last season.
The only time for Carlyle to move James van Riemsdyk down to the second line in favour of Lupul is if he begins to falter. Then and only then should he receive a demotion. With that, it appears van Riemsdyk may have taken over from Joffrey Lupul in Toronto.
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Lukas, a student at the University of Ottawa, covers the Toronto Maple Leafs on a part-time basis for The Hockey Writers. Contact Lukas at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter, @LukasHardonk.