What Keefe and Bunting’s ‘heat of the battle’ interaction means to the Leafs

Check this out, as Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe appears to be having some extra words for forward Michael Bunting on the bench after one of his shifts.

TORONTO – Cameras, they’re everywhere these days.

They catch all.

A hockey player walking down a hallway and making kindling out of a stick in frustration.

A black puck trapped in the white webbing of a goaltender’s glove but just a hair across the goal line.

A head coach tearing into a seated player on the bench, and that player turning his head to look the other way …

So, yes, the cameras caught Sheldon Keefe’s in-game, um, pep talk to the streaky Michael Bunting midway through Sunday’s 3-2 win in Nashville. They captured the emotional Toronto Maple Leafs bench boss tapping the emotional winger on the shoulder. And they nabbed Bunting looking the other way, electing not to acknowledge a voice that has been in his ear since both men were cutting their teeth with the 2013-14 Soo Greyhounds.

Victory sealed, a playoff spot officially locked up, and a day away from the rink have cooled any tensions that may have risen Sunday.

“Bunts and I do have a relationship that goes far beyond here. But that’s not anything I focus on and think about. It’s a non-issue for me,” Keefe said of the interaction, following Tuesday’s practice.

“I give players a lot of leeway and a pass essentially, especially for those that come right off the ice. For me to expect a player coming right from the heat of the battle to sit on the bench and be a true gentleman when I want to go talk to him, I’m putting myself at risk in going into that situation. A non-issue for me. I think he got the message. I know that he hears me.”

Both parties are smartly downplaying any hint of friction here.

The Maple Leafs want only home ice, healthy bodies and positive vibes as this core gears up to snuff out its six-series postseason losing streak.

“I’ll leave that between Keefer and I. But what I will say is, Keefer and I have a good relationship. We’ve known each other for a very long time. And, yeah, there’s not really much to see there,” Bunting said. “He’s one of the reasons I came to Toronto, so, yeah, we’ll leave it at that.

“He knows, obviously, how to coach me and knows how I am and what kind of player I am. So, I wouldn’t really look much into that. And, yeah, just another day.”

Mountains should not be made of molehills.

Nathan MacKinnon and Jared Bednar engaged in a much fierier on-camera discussion with the Colorado Avalanche. They later found themselves on the same float at a Stanley Cup parade.

What we will take from the Keefe-Bunting dialogue, however, are two things: 1) It’s a reminder of Keefe’s urgency to get all his players on task for the ultimate test next month; 2) It’s gut-check time for the up-and-down Bunting, whose play has hit enough of a lull that, even with Ryan O’Reilly injured, Keefe demoted him to the third line – away from good friend and top centreman Auston Matthews.

The tweak was partly meant as a wakeup call to an important role player feeling the pressures of his next contract and the need to perform better in the upcoming Tampa series than he did in the previous one (mostly because Bunting was skating hurt last spring).

“The way that things have gone there, the Matthews line needed to change,” Keefe said.

Calle Järnkrok — seven points in his past eight games — has filled in nicely alongside Matthews and Mitch Marner, while Bunting is getting reps on an energy unit with newbies Sam Lafferty and Noel Acciari.

“All three of us are hard on the forecheck. And that’s what I do, and that’s what I bring any line I play with,” Bunting said. “We just gotta read off each other more and know who’s going in and then who’s going to be the high guy, because I feel like all three of us want to just get in there and try to hound on that puck.”

No doubt, there are certain players Keefe feels more comfortable giving a shake than others. The coach took issue with a slip in Bunting’s defensive responsibility this month. And Bunting’s minus-3 in March — his worst month in that category since his first as a Leaf — lends credence to that argument.

Bunting’s mini benching limited his ice time to 12:25, below his 15:54 usual this season.

But after the camera caught Keefe giving Bunting an earful on the bench Sunday, the coach has switched from whip to carrot, publicly.

“I think Bunts’s game has really improved here in the last week to two weeks. He’s making lots more plays. He’s skating better, to me. It looks like he’s playing with a freer mind and looks to be finding his game again,” Keefe said.

“I’ve talked to him at length about some defensive things that are really important, but to me his game has really been trending in a good direction.”

Bunting, too, is pouring cold water here, smartly putting team goals ahead of personal ones.

“I’m happy to play anywhere, to be honest. That’s first, second, third or fourth line. I want to help this team win, and it doesn’t matter where I am,” Bunting said.

“I’m gonna bring it every single night. So, that’s what I plan to do. And I’m happy wherever I am.”

One-Timers: Ryan O’Reilly (broken finger) is skating on his own and shooting pucks. Although he hasn’t been ruled out to play Saturday in Ottawa, the plan is to give him a few more days to heal and get him in action next week. … Ilya Samsonov is full smile after staying home from the Maple Leafs’ five-game road trip, recovering from his undisclosed minor injury and welcoming his first born, Miroslav, to the family: “The best week of my life.” … Noel Acciari (day-to-day; undisclosed) did not practise Tuesday and will not play Wednesday. Keefe will roll with an 11-forward, seven-defencemen lineup. … Erik Gustafsson remains away for personal reasons.

Maple Leafs projected 11/7 lineup Wednesday vs. Florida Panthers

Järnkrok – Matthews – Marner

Kerfoot – Tavares – Nylander

Bunting – Lafferty

Aston-Reese – Kämpf – Simmonds

McCabe – Brodie

Giordano – Holl

Rielly – Schenn




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