Quick Shifts: Why Maple Leafs’ Michael Bunting is going streaking

Toronto Maple Leafs forward and Scarborough native Michael Bunting talked about his willingness to fit into whatever role is necessary with the team he grew up around.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. The Montreal Canadiens wanted to hire me, mais mon français n’est pas bon.

1. Just because Michael Bunting is being tasked with the grunt work on the left wing of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner doesn’t mean he’s trying to be the next Zach Hyman.

Nah, he’d rather be the best version of himself.

And, lately, the man they call “Bunts” is knocking it out the park.

Asked by a reporter Friday if he ever studied Hyman’s shifts alongside arguably the most talented duo in the East, Bunting said no.

“I stick to my own game. I stick to what I bring to the table. And I feel like I can be very complementary to this line as well with what I can do,” Bunting replied.

“Both of them want the puck all the time. Good things happen when it’s on their sticks.”

Tied for second in the rookie scoring race, Bunting will exit this weekend with as many career games played for the Toronto Maple Leafs as he had with the Arizona Coyotes (26).

While he may have scored more goals as a Coyote (11-6), thanks to a high shooting percentage, Bunting’s role as a top-line complement has led to more helpers (11-3) and a higher profile in Toronto.

His penchant for drawing penalties (14, second-most in the NHL), his omnipresent smile, his modest cap hit, and his late-blooming underdog tale have made the scrappy Scarborough 26-year-old a fan favourite.

If he’s not helping on the forecheck or digging for rebounds, he’s raising refs’ arms and getting the big boys on the power play.

“Penalties tend to happen in the dirty areas — and that’s where I am,” Bunting said. “I’m going to the right spots.”

Thing is, Bunting didn’t stick alongside Matthews and Marner out of the gate, even though it was his spot to lose.

He wasn’t winning enough puck battles or helping generate enough goals early on, which led to a demotion to the bottom six and had the fan base pining for Hyman.

But since his return to Line 1, Bunting has captured his confidence and is having a blast.

“He’s more comfortable,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “While, on the surface, you think playing with players of that calibre is somewhat easier, I think there are some challenges that come with it that are more difficult than playing lower in the lineup. And some of that is mental. In fact, a lot of it probably is mental.”

Despite his age, Bunting’s NHL career is only 50 games old. He needed time to establish himself in the league, so Keefe wanted to “reset him a little bit” by dropping his minutes and getting him back to basics.

Check hard. Chase pucks. Get them in the proper hands.

Now? The greybeard of the 2022 freshman class is flying high on a five-game point streak and having the most fun he’s had since he was ripping it in the AHL for 2017-18’s excellent Tucson Roadrunners.

“I’m just trying to play simple, play my game, play with confidence. I feel like at the start of the year I wasn’t playing with as much confidence. I wasn’t holding onto [the puck] as much as I am right now,” said Bunting, looking like a lottery winner alongside Matthews and Marner.

“I hang out with both those guys pretty often off the ice. So, to play with them on the ice, it’s a lot of fun. I just try to get open, try to retrieve pucks and let them play with their magic. And right now, we’re rolling.”

2. Saturday’s Toronto-Minnesota tilt will feature one of the top four offences in the NHL as well as the Maple Leafs.

Yes, believe it or not, the Wild have become a scoring superpower, averaging 3.74 goals per game (the 11th-ranked Leafs offence has ramped up to 3.08).

Over the course of its 21-year existence, the Wild have scored at a three-goals-a-night pace just five times. Prior to now, their most potent offence hummed at a 3.21 goals clip (2020-21 and 2016-17).

What makes this red-light explosion interesting is that Minnesota’s power play is awful. The Wild’s 27th-ranked PP (13.5 per cent) is the worst among all teams in playoff position.

Calder champ Kirill Kaprizov is putting the lie to the sophomore slump, with a team-leading 28 points, but Ryan Hartman stands out as an incredible surprise.

Out of nowhere, the 27-year-old has exploded for a career campaign. He leads the NHL in plus/minus (plus-22), ranks third in even-strength goals (12) and game-winners (four), and is top 10 in shots (84).

Dude is on his fourth NHL team. He’s a bargain $1.7 million cap hit locked up through 2024, making him the eighth-highest-paid forward on the roster. Great story.

3. Keefe dropped a little tidbit regarding the Leafs’ top power-play unit.

There was a healthy discussion going into camp about giving the point to 21-year-old Rasmus Sandin, who was given some run in that prime spot late in 2020-21.

New assistant Spencer Carbery wanted to give Morgan Rielly first crack at it, however, and an element of veteran status came into play.

I like that call.

But what that tells me is that Keefe loves the progression of Sandin, whose lineup security has become more certain than that of Justin Holl and Travis Dermott. And if the Leafs’ resurgent PP does hit a lull at some point, or Rielly gets hurt, we’ll see Sandin running point on PP1 in a heartbeat. (And now that Rielly re-signed, there’s no risk of irking a key player during a contract year.)

“You have probably the best goal-scorer in the world on one of [the units]. It’s easy for a young guy to just give the puck to 34,” Sandin said. “It shouldn’t matter for me if I’m on power-play 1 or 2.

“Coming in this year, I know that I can play the power-play. I’ve felt comfortable and confident.”

Bunting added: “He sees that next play before the puck is even on his stick. So when he’s anchoring it, good things happen.”

Sandin got a kick out of the fan-made parody of Boney M.’s “Rasputin” — Ra-Ra-Ras Sandin, saviour of the special teams!

“I loved it. It’s fun,” Sandin said. “The fans are super passionate. They love the game of hockey, but I was a little surprised.”

Sandin’s brother cranked the song a couple times during workouts in summer, and Rasmus’s dad, Patric, turned the tune into his ringtone

“He loves it,” Sandin smiled.

4. Remarkable turnaround for the San Jose Sharks’ penalty kill.

A middle-of-the-pack unit last season (80.4 per cent), the Sharks’ PK is now the best in the West (88.1 per cent) and rates second leaguewide. Only Pittsburgh’s is more efficient.

With a pair of shorthanded goals, the Sharks also rank second overall (to Edmonton) in net PK percentage (91.5).

“It’s probably the most pressure you’ll see in the NHL,” Keefe said. “Right from the drop of the puck, they’re coming. They don’t lay off. It’s a great challenge to execute within that.”

The improved PK is indicative of the group’s defensive buy-in. They’ve jumped from bottom-third to top-third in slot shots allowed.

And they rank third overall in blocked shots per 60 (16.03), up from 14.29 last season.

“The guys who have been through it, stuck around here, you’re sick of losing,” Erik Karlsson told reporters after Friday’s 2-1 OT win on Long Island. “You’re trying to find new ways to evolve and turn into the team you want to be.”

5. At even strength …

Jared McCann: 5 goals, 4 assists, 9 points, minus–5

Alexander Kerfoot: 4 goals, 12 assists, 16 points, plus-13

(McCann does have five power-play goals; Kerfoot does not see any PP time.)

6. Check out the “Hockey Chair.”

The details on this thing are insane.

Furniture maker Tony Belbeck poured well over 100 hours of labour into designing and constructing this incredible La-Z-Boy from the hockey gods that my wife has forbidden me to bid on.

The current highest bid is at $8,000. Proceeds go to Easter Seals as part of the Brad May Celebrity Hockey Classic.

7. Colorado has an incredible 25 goals from its blue-line. Ten of those are from the stick of Cale Makar, who already has nine at even strength.

Avalanche coach Jared Bednar didn’t blink when asked if Makar could score 30 this season.

“Yes,” Bednar said. “He’s a guy who can score from distance, which always helps.

“The sky’s the limit.”

Even with its all-star power play and potent top six, Colorado’s active D corps is its most unique weapon.

“Cale Makar is leading their team in 5-on-5 goals. How many teams in the league is that the case?” Keefe said. “Their defence is extremely active, extremely fast, dynamic. They make plays all over the ice. They stress you on the rush; they stress you with how they play in the offensive zone.

“From my eye, they lead the league in backdoor, empty-net tap-ins — because they just make so many plays. And a lot of that is because you get drawn to the motion, into the speed and how dynamic their defence is, and you end up kind of chasing them around.”

8. Find someone who talks about you the way Nathan MacKinnon talks about Makar:

“I thought he’s been the best D in the league for two years now. And I thought he should’ve won the Norris last year [Makar finished second in voting to Adam Fox], and he’s probably going to run away with it this year. I mean, he’s scoring a ton of goals and making amazing plays. We’re so lucky to have a defenceman like that on our team. … I think we have the best first pair in the league with Toewser [Devon Toews] and Cale.”

Both halves of that pair are averaging a point per game.

MacKinnon has seen Makar’s confidence rise as well as his play without the puck. He’s still skating 24 minutes a night, but Bednar is slowly trying to incorporate Makar into a penalty-killing role, adding another arrow to his quiver.

Makar skated a grand total of 5:51 on the PK as a rookie in 2019-20. He’s at 12:30 this season and should set a new career-high in the category.

9. Besides the incredible on-ice production of a dialed-in Nazem Kadri, who fuels Colorado’s second line, MacKinnon says what Kadri has brought to the dressing room cannot be overlooked.

“He brings a swag to the team, a lot of confidence, and a lot of grittiness too. He’s got some funny chirps. I wouldn’t go to battle chirping him, that’s for sure. You’d get roasted,” MacKinnon said.

Example?

“He told a guy he could do his laundry. And he’ll fight him if he plays eight minutes tonight. But his delivery is a lot better than mine.”

10. Few things fascinate me like Team Canada’s goalie situation.

Much like Jack Eichel south of the border, you gotta believe Carey Price is trying to ramp up his health and conditioning over the next month to make Beijing.

But when you look at the NHL’s current Canadian leaders in goals-against average (Tristan Jarry, 1.97), saves (Jarry, 532), shutouts (Jarry, three), wins (Cam Talbot, 12) and save percentage (James Reimer, .934), they all have something in common: They were not named to the national team’s Olympic long list.

“He’s just steady,” Canada’s expected captain Sidney Crosby said of Jarry. “The way he looks, he looks pretty calm in there, so that’s huge.”

Should Jarry be in the Olympic conversation, then?

“I have no idea, but I see him every day and he’s pretty solid,” Crosby said. “I wouldn’t want to be the person having to make those decisions. A lot of great players from every country to choose from, but he’s solid in there and he’s playing great hockey. That’s part of it, too — playing great hockey at the right time. He’s done that for us.”

Jarry’s turnaround is a sharp encouragement after a disappointing postseason.

“Just be better,” Jarry said. “That was my mindset going into the summer.”

I wouldn’t say the gap between Jarry and, say, Carter Hart is so wide right now as to stir controversy.

But with Price a question mark, long-lister Darcy Kuemper (upper body) injured, and long-lister Jordan Binnington now sidelined with COVID-19, what happens if Jarry is the hottest healthy Canadian goalie come January?

Would the country argue for an exception the way Sweden is doing for Calder frontrunner Lucas Raymond, who was absent from his country’s long list?

Just a thought.

11. For all the (deserved) hype being spilled the way of Troy Terry and Trevor Zegras in Anaheim, another young Ducks forward needs some love.

The delayed emergence of Sonny Milano has been an under-the-radar pleasant surprise in Orange County.

Milano has put up five goals and 16 points through 19 games.

A first-round pick by Columbus back in 2014, the skillsy Milano is helping linemates Zegras and Rickard Rakell tilt the ice and generate scoring chances aplenty.

To think, the Blue Jackets — always hungry for goals — traded Milano away for Devin Shore when the left-winger was only 23.

Shore skated all of six games for the Jackets in 2020 before going unqualified and ending up with Edmonton the following season.

A decisive trade win for the Ducks.

12. ICYMI: Gilbert Gottfried’s Brady Tkachuk impression is a sight to behold…

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