When Michael Bunting signed a two-year, $1.9 million contract to play for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs, there was no way to know it would have worked out this well.
The 26-year-old is now a Calder Trophy finalist after a standout rookie season that saw him score 23 goals and 63 points in his first full season in the NHL. But with the announcement of the nomination coming just one day before his team has a chance to advance to the first round since 2004, the Scarborough native wasn’t ready to indulge in the honour.
“It was a lot of fun this season and I had some success, but I am more worried about the playoffs and (Thursday’s) game,” Bunting said before his Maple Leafs prepared to travel to Tampa for Game 6 of their first-round playoffs series.
If any of the Maple Leafs’ signings this past summer was set to prove their naysayers wrong, it was Bunting. He is the quintessential late bloomer.
A fourth-round pick from the 2014 NHL Draft, it wasn’t until last season that the pesky forward received an extended look at the NHL level. That is where he turned an extended run of 21 games with the Arizona Coyotes where he scored 10 goals into an invite from Team Canada for the World Hockey Championships.
After helping his team win gold after an 0-3 start in the preliminary round, he got the attention of a Maple Leafs team looking to fill the void of Zach Hyman’s off-season departure to the Edmonton Oilers as well as supporting winger spots in Joe Thornton (signed to the Florida Panthers), Alex Galchenyuk (signed to the Coyotes) and Nick Foligno (signed to the Boston Bruins).
Bunting joined a group of newcomers that included Ondrej Kase (signed to a one-year, $1.25 million contract), David Kampf (two-year, $3 million contract) and the most expensive piece, Nick Ritchie, (two-years, $5 million).
Because of the magnitude of the signing and his NHL pedigree, it was Ritchie who got the first look alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on the Leafs’ top line.
But as Ritchie floundered, Bunting’s stock rose.
“It’s been quite the journey to get to the NHL for me,” Bunting recalled. “I was able to make it and solidify myself. I just kept that same attitude every single day and night in and night out here. I think I did a pretty good job.”
Jason Spezza recalled seeing Bunting in the weight room at Ford Performance Centre just one day after the forward signed with the Maple Leafs. Impressed with his work ethic and determination, he wasn’t surprised to see him rise up to the top.
“This wasn’t handed to him,” Spezza said of Bunting. “This wasn’t something that was just given to him. Other guys got chances ahead of him. Bunts, when he got it, he was able to grab it.”
In mid-November, Bunting moved up from the fourth line to the first line as Ritchie struggled and he has stayed there, with the exception of a small portion of this first round series with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Ritchie was traded away to the Bunting’s former team, the Coyotes in exchange for Ilya Lyubushkin.
With questions about his health after an undisclosed injury at the end of the season that forced him to miss Game 1, Bunting says he feels good as the Maple Leafs’ first-round series with the Lightning shifts to Game 6 with a chance to advance to the second round.
Bunting, a lifelong Leafs fan, knows what is at stake. And for someone who had to push through some adversity in his NHL career, there may not be a better player to help them get past the goal line.
“Game-to-game, shift-to-shift, it just became apparent that he was ready for more and was earning more,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said of Bunting. “To see that acknowledgement (of the Calder) is a terrific thing.”
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