MILTON — Every September brings about a fresh set of questions for NHL teams. When the Toronto Maple Leafs officially gather for training camp at the end of this week, people will want to know how the goalies look, how the defencemen are paired and how the forward depth may shake out after a few off-season departures.
Toronto’s top line, though, is pretty much plug-and-play and that’s because one of the bigger unknowns from this time last year has worked out so well. Twelve months ago, Michael Bunting was a 26-year-old left winger with that exact same number of total NHL games on his career resume. Now 27, he’s coming off a season in which he was a finalist for rookie of the year thanks to a 23-goal showing playing beside team pillars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
“Coming in this year, I’m more comfortable with a year under my belt with these guys and with this team.” Bunting said Monday at Rattlesnake Point Golf Club before teeing it up at the Leafs and Legends Charity Golf Classic. “Now I know everybody, I’m not a new kid. Just more comfortable and I’m excited to get it started.”
Bunting inked a two-year contract in the summer of 2021 thanks in large part to the 10 goals he scored in 21 contests with the Arizona Coyotes during the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 campaign. Basically, at five-foot-11, he was an undersized guy surrounded by lots of “small sample size” talk when he landed in Toronto.
As a fourth-rounder who essentially didn’t get any NHL footing until his mid-20s, Bunting’s reputation — and playing style — is that of an underdog who will chew and claw for everything he can get. His abrasiveness was a perfect complement to the mind-bending skill of the Leafs’ top two forwards, as the trio brought a little bit of everything to the table between the three of them. Now, suddenly, Bunting has gone from trying to show he’s got something to offer, to proving his contributions can be counted on game in, game out.
“I did have success last year, but I have to repeat that and keep that coming every single year I play,” the Scarborough native said. “It took me a while to get into the NHL and I know how hard it is to get there, but it’s [also so easy to be] out of the NHL. I want to stay here and I want to prove last year wasn’t a fluke.”
Should Bunting — who, like his pal Matthews, just celebrated a birthday on Saturday — continue to be an integral part of the Leafs’ top-six mix, it will be a quick transition from fans wondering what he can bring to fearing he may depart as an unrestricted free agent next summer. For his part, Bunting says he’s far more dialed in on the present than fretting about what may occur between now and next off-season.
“I [leave] that stuff with my agent, I don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’m more worried about getting the season started and getting going with the guys.”
While Bunting made a point to re-connect with family and friends during the past weeks and months, he didn’t have to wait until training camp to rekindle the magic with Matthews and Marner. The former invited the two GTA boys down to his home in Arizona during the break for a little work/play getaway. “Matty reached out and asked if we wanted to come down and spend the week, workout and train and also just hang out,” Bunting said.
While hockey talk was obviously part of what went on, Bunting said the guys mostly just enjoyed each other’s company and he wanted to set the record straight about what happens when the linemates actually go head-to-head in a sporting competition.
“Whatever they say, I dominated in tennis,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s fun playing with them, it’s also fun hanging out with them off the ice. Hopefully, we can just keep rolling with that and if we’re playing with each other this year, keep budling off that chemistry.”
Bunting said the undisclosed injury that kept him out of the final three regular season games and the first tilt of Toronto’s eventual seven-game, first-round loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning has completely healed. He also acknowledged he would have been sidelined longer had it not been the most meaningful time of year. As for how he tried to improve during the off-season, Bunting said it was a balance of perfecting the things he does well — scoring from in tight, emerging from battles with the puck for a scoring opportunity — with those elements that aren’t necessarily calling cards for him just yet.
“I also worked on my shot and being more of a threat on the rush and being able to shoot from afar,” he said. “I hope I can add that to my game, but I also have to stick to my game, play how I do, play in those dirty areas, get in front of the net and whack away.
“I’m looking forward to doing that all over again.”