MONTRÉAL – Michael Bunting is probably not the straightest face at the poker table.
On opening night of the impending UFA’s critical contract season, Bunting couldn’t help but tip his hand as he and the Toronto Maple Leafs inch toward a decision on his future.
There are no bluffs when it comes to how the kid from Scarborough would like his next negotiation to play out.
“I'm a Toronto boy. I love playing for the Maple Leafs. This is my home. I grew up in Scarborough, and, yeah, it's so much fun putting on that sweater every single night. That’s what I will say about it, and I hope everything else figures out itself,” Bunting said, following Wednesday’s optional skate at Bell Centre.
Complementary Leafs skaters overdelivering on their contracts have a difficult time remaining anything but “own rentals” in the Kyle Dubas era.
Zach Hyman, Jack Campbell and Ilya Mikheyev are a few examples of athletes who thrived on team-friendly salaries for the Blue and White but needed to look elsewhere for their long-term windfalls as unrestricted free agents.
The late-blooming Bunting’s situation feels a little different.
First, Bunting has a tight relationship off the ice and seamless chemistry on it with franchise star Auston Matthews — whom the organization will attempt to re-sign long-term come July 1. Why wouldn’t a serious commitment to Bunting double as a selling point to keep Matthews around?
Second, he is a candidate for a slight hometown discount, as proven by his willingness to accept a value deal to come home as a UFA in the summer of 2021.
The Leafs are making out like bandits on the top-line winger’s two-year pact at a $950,000 AAV. Bunting broke out for 23 goals, 63 points and was a finalist for the Calder Trophy last season.
Skating with Matthews and Mitch Marner, he is now a fixture on arguably the most dangerous line in hockey.
“For him, the challenge would be not to get caught up in anything else other than what he can control,” coach Sheldon Keefe says. “Coming in last season, there were a lot of question marks: Could he establish himself in the NHL?
“Now, Bunts has clearly established himself as a successful player and an integral part of a very successful line for us. Now, the teams know who he is. They respect his game. Officials know who he is (too).”
Bunting is an agitator supreme. The edge he injects into a skill-heavy lineup is unique. He draws penalties at a high rate, helping throw the NHL’s No. 1 power-play unit over the boards. But he was also dinged for a $2,000 embellishment fine last season.
He’s more confident this fall on his place on the squad. In short, he’s one of the boys:
“I'm just a little more comfortable. But obviously the jitters are still there. The excitement is still there. I just can't wait to get it going,” Bunting said before puck drop. “Last year I was really excited, and I think this year I'm even more excited.”
That (a) the salary cap ceiling is projected to spike during Bunting’s next deal and that (b) Dubas was willing to give term to a role-playing winger like Calle Järnkrok (four years) over the summer suggests there is a path to give Bunting, 27, security and term while keeping his annual cap hit in check.
Both Dubas and Bunting’s agent, Paul Capizzano, may be amenable to an eight-year deal when the serious proposals start, Pierre LeBrun reported Tuesday night.
Bunting says he’s fine with the idea of negotiating in-season but wants to leave the details to his camp.
“To be honest, I don’t even think about it. I stay off social media. I stay off all that kind of stuff,” Bunting said. “I just try to ignore it and let my team handle that. And whatever happens, happens.
“I kinda don't really want to know a lot. I just want to play, and all that will happen later on.”
OK. But you would prefer long-term, correct?
“No comment,” Bunting replies, with a laugh.
And the poker face cracks a little.