Barring an untimely injury, Joffrey Lupul will start training camp on a line with Tim Connolly and Phil Kessel.
The keyword being start.
That's not to suggest Lupul is the weakest forward on theToronto Maple Leafs' top-six unit, or that he will ultimately move down the depth chart, but he is certainly in a vulnerable position with the second-line of Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur all but set in stone---unless the line fails to rekindle its chemistry from the onset. And barring the unlikely scenario of Nazem Kadri or Joe Colborne prying the number-one center position from Connolly, and I wouldn't bet a cent on that happening, Lupul's spot on the left wing could be in jeopardy should he fail to show chemistry on the top line at the start of training camp. Having said that, if last season is any indication, Lupul should have no problem producing as a top-six forward.
Like many Leafs players, Lupul had a productive close-quarter to the 2010-11 season. He netted 9 goals and 15 points in the last 21 games---0 goals and 3 points in the first 7 games---and never looked out of place on the top line. Whether that hot streak is a premonition of next season is questionable, but Lupul is capable of producing in the 50-point range---46 points in 56 games in 2007-08; 50 points in 79 games in 2008-09---so it's not unreasonable to suggest Lupul's career was finally getting back on track after a couple injury-plagued and inconsistent seasons. And consider that Lupul averaged over 18 minutes of ice-time just once in his NHL career, not surprisingly the same season he put up 46 points in 56 games, his best points-per-game pace. In the month of March with the Leafs, Lupul averaged 18:01 TOI/G and produced 10 points in 15 games, which would put him in the 50-60 point range if he were to continue that pace for an entire season.
While Lupul's spot on the top line may be the most vunerable among the Leafs' top-six forwards, it should be noted that there isn't exactly heady competition for the position. In fact, the sole competitor, barring any surprises at training camp, may be Kadri, who has somewhat gone under the radar as a potential top-six candidate with all the additions general manager Brian Burke has imported to the roster. Kadri has only played 29 NHL games, but his rollercoaster season of alternating between the NHL and the AHL may benefit his development entering the 2011-12 season. While he struggled to find his place on the Leafs last season, that was not the case with the big club's AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies. Kadri produced 41 points in 44 games with the Marlies and looked primed for a one-way ticket to the Leafs, mostly due to the fact that he began to redefine his defensive game---a crucial step for a young player of small stature. While this may earn him a spot on the third-line, it's entirely possible that Kadri takes the next step and outperforms Lupul as a top-six forward. He certainly has more offensive potential than Lupul, not to mention the advantage of being a left-handed shooter, something the Leafs' top line lacked last season. The 2011-12 season can go various ways for a young player such as Kadri, and emerging as top-six forward is certainly one of them.
If Lupul is to move down the depth chart by the start of the 2011-12 season, it will almost certainly be due to Kadri's development as the Leafs' top prospect.
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