Maple Leafs’ Michael Bunting: Not Someone to Bet Against 

Before the 2021-22 regular season began, Sheldon Keefe had to have an inkling about what the team had brought in with Michael Bunting. During a preseason game in Ottawa, Bunting had scored a hat trick and Kurtis Gabriel interrupted the post-game interview to call Bunting “a greasy rat.” Keefe didn’t disagree. 

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Instead, Keefe noted that, in the short time he’d known the rookie winger, he had learned that Bunting was one of the most hated players on the ice. And, that was something Keefe had already come to appreciate.

Related: Maple Leafs Commentary: Always Seeking the Newest Michael Bunting

Just prior to the start of the regular season, Keefe speculated about why Bunting might be a valuable addition to the team. The one thing he noted was Bunting’s ability to be a pest. 

The Maple Leafs didn’t have a pest last season. For as good as first-line, left-winger Zach Hyman was, he just didn’t get under the skin of the opponents. As Keefe noted at the time, Bunting was a “guy who makes no friends on the ice.” He’s hungry and competitive around the net, which is what makes him a potentially good scorer. Keefe noted that Bunting was “always looking to get an edge on you.”

Michael Bunting Toronto Maple Leafs
Michael Bunting, Toronto Maple Leafs (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Getting that edge was something Bunting excelled at – over and over again. He led rookies with 45 penalties drawn while playing 15:33 of ice time as a full-time member of the Maple Leafs’ top line. However, like Hyman, Bunting was also tenacious at puck retrieval, ranking sixth among rookies in takeaways (36). 

Bunting’s Back Story Before He Became a Maple Leafs’ Player

Bunting’s story is one of a classic underdog. He plays with a chip on his shoulder. He played AA hockey for a long time and wasn’t drafted until he was 18 years old. As a result, Bunting came to the Maple Leafs with a lot to prove.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Bunting Is a Throwback to Sundin-Era

It was one reason Keefe believed Bunting had a chance to be a good NHL player. Bunting was a late-bloomer who’d risen to where he was because he was determined, believed in himself, worked hard, and because he had a competitive spirit that simply would not stop.

Now a Season Later, Bunting Wants More

Looking back at Bunting’s season, it’s hard not to believe it was successful even beyond his own dreams. Still, in an interview late last week by Terry Koshan in the Toronto Sun, Bunting noted that he felt he had “to show that this year was not a fluke.” (from “Maple Leafs’ Bunting already preparing ‘to show that this year was not a fluke,’” Terry Koshan, Toronto Sun, 24/06/2022).

In that interview, Bunting shared that he wants to keep earning his keep with the Maple Leafs. For that reason alone, it’s hard not like the guy. 

Michael Bunting
Michael Bunting when he played in the Soo [photo: Terry Wilson/OHL Images]

After toiling in the minors for so many seasons, he’s just come off a rookie season where he out-performed on-ice expectations and came in third in Calder Trophy voting as the NHL’s rookie of the year. He scored 23 goals and added 40 assists (for a  total of 63 points), which led all NHL rookies in scoring. His age — he’ll be 27 in September — might have been a factor in the Calder voting. 

However, in my book his age makes me respect his story even more. He had to fight for his chance to be in the NHL. In the Toronto Sun interview, Bunting showed his willingness to continue that fight. He wants to prove that his solid season was not a fluke. I don’t know about other fans, but I appreciate that. 

Bunting has a work ethic. I like work ethic.

Some Fans Still Believe Bunting’s Value Is Somehow Diminished

Bunting’s value was also diminished in some fans’ books because he had the chance to play on the same line as stars like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. That’s like saying that even a Zamboni driver could score 20 goals as Matthews’ winger. I disagree. To my eyes, Bunting clicked because he worked hard to become a valuable third member of the top line. Had he played there the entire season, the entire line would have been even more productive. 

Related: Maple Leafs Have Untapped Potential in Newly-Signed Michael Bunting

Bunting added that “I have to be consistent because that’s what good hockey players do. They do it every single year. So definitely, I have to take my game up a level. I can’t be comfortable with what I did. I was fortunate that I landed on a spot with Matty and Mitch, and we gelled and we rolled all year together.”

Then he spoke confidently about himself without being overbearing, which is a characteristic I think will help him get through the tough spots. He noted that “I was proud of myself, the way I handled everything. It was quite the path to get to the NHL. I stuck to my game and believed in myself and I had a pretty successful year by doing all of that.” 

Michael Bunting Toronto Maple Leafs
Michael Bunting, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

One thing I’ve noticed about athletes who’ve pulled themselves through the toils and tough times to finally reach a pinnacle of success that’s allowed them to fulfill a dream is that they have that “humble confidence.” In another sport, NFL football’s Hall of Famer Kurt Warner’s self-talk also demonstrated the same trait. I also have that feeling about young Nick Robertson.  

What Can Maple Leafs’ Fans Expect from Bunting in 2022-23?

I have no idea what to expect from Bunting or the Maple Leafs’ top line next season; however, should the line and the three players all continue to improve, it wouldn’t be beyond expectations if Bunting scored upwards of 30 goals and had an 80-point season. 

Related: Five Predictions for the Maple Leafs Upcoming Offseason (2021)

In his interview prior to last season’s start, Keefe noted that Bunting combined competitiveness with hunger, talent, and an ability around the net. That’s a combination, Keefe noted, you don’t bet against. Keefe was right.