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The case for Michael Bunting being scratched for Game 5

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Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Michael Mazzei
9 months ago
Michael Bunting is done serving his three-game suspension and is eligible to return to the lineup for Game 5 tonight.
Given that he is one of the Leafs’ most essential forwards all season and is coming off a 23-goal campaign in the regular season, logic would tell you that Bunting would get reinstated into the Leafs’ lineup. But the circumstances as to why Bunting was suspended and what has happened this past year would make this anything but a straightforward decision for Sheldon Keefe and the coaching staff to make.
The Leafs ultimately opted to keep their lines from the past three games intact and Bunting is thus going to once again be watching from the press box, only this time as a healthy scratch.
This is obviously going to be a controversial decision for some people given that Bunting has served his suspension and is one of the Leafs’ best forwards over the past two seasons. Considering his long-standing beef with the officials, his tendency to let his emotions get the best of him, and the nature of why he got suspended in the first place, others would see the choice of keeping Bunting out of the lineup for another game as the right decision.
No matter which side of the debate you are on, it’s undeniable that Bunting made a bad decision hitting Erik Cernak in the head back in Game 1 and Bunting has no one to blame but himself for the predicament he is now in, especially with it being a contract year.
So why did the Leafs opt to make him a healthy scratch? It boils down to a number of factors.
Because Bunting got suspended for three games, the door was cracked wide open for Matthew Knies to step in and make an impact. To say he has taken the opportunity and ran with it would be a massive understatement.
He has picked up an assist in his three-game stint and was on the ice for both of the team’s overtime-winning goals in Games 3 and 4. Knies has not looked out of place for a guy who has less than 10 NHL games of experience, using his body to shield the puck and make a play, helping to maintain the cycle, and coming up big with some key defensive plays.
Had Knies struggled to adjust and be more of a hindrance than an asset, I would imagine this decision would be a lot easier for Keefe to make.
“Very good hockey player. It is really that simple,” Keefe told the media about what led to Knies’ early success. “In addition to the talent, he has confidence and some swagger to him. He just goes out and plays.”
It certainly helps that the Leafs have been able to pile on three wins in Bunting’s absence. Granted, the Leafs were mostly outplayed in the two games down in Tampa and objectively speaking they did not deserve to win those games. It is understandable then why some would believe that it would make sense to put Bunting back in the lineup because he makes the team better.
Yet, they somehow found a way to pull off the two wins and that’s really what matters most at the end of the day. And Game 2 was arguably the Leafs’ best showing in the series, playing dominant hockey for all 60 minutes and having the results to show for it. So it makes sense why Keefe is opting to keep the lines intact for Game 5: they have gotten the Leafs up 3-1 in the series and a coach will opt to stick with what’s working at this time of year.
I would be remiss if I did not address the elephant in the room as part of the reason why Bunting is not going to be in the lineup tonight. Given his well-documented squabble with the referees all season long, the loss of trust in him by the coaching staff is probably playing a factor in the decision.
Now that is not to say Bunting’s standing within the organization is totally screwed because Keefe did explicitly say that he would eventually put the forward back in the lineup and that it wasn’t easy to reach the decision. After all, both he and Kyle Dubas know Bunting long enough to get a read of what works best for him and how to get him going when stuck in a rut.
He is also a guy who plays on the edge and that has put him in the crosshairs of the officials when it comes to penalties drawn and taken. This past season saw him finish second in the league in penalties drawn and tied for first in penalties taken in all situations. Whether Bunting is able to get the Leafs on the power play or forced to kill a penalty has now been reduced to a coin flip, and that is a tricky predicament for a team to be in when special teams have long been a vital component in deciding series.
Then there’s the fact that Bunting has the tendency to let his emotions take over, which can be both a blessing and a curse. His willingness to stick up for his teammates and play a hardnosed game while also being a consistent point producer has been a rarity on the Leafs over the past decade and that has made him valuable and a fan favourite. When things don’t go his way, Bunting will let the referees know about it and that was affected how they officiate him this season (as evidenced by their refusal to interact with him during a game against the Red Wings earlier this month).
Him being someone who plays on the edge and with emotions made him a prime target for the opposition to focus on in an attempt to bait him into taking a penalty and putting the Leafs down a man. The Lightning used this strategy both in the regular season tune-up and in Game 1, culminating in the infamous hit on Cernak that resulted in a five-minute major and two power-play goals that iced the game for them.
So with a big target on his back that won’t go away anytime soon and a desperate Tampa Bay team looking to keep their season alive, putting Bunting back in the lineup would have once again made him a focal point for the Lightning to close in on and try and get the special teams advantage back in their favour.
There certainly are plenty of valid points as to why putting Bunting back in the lineup for Game 5 is the right move, the reasons why they shouldn’t also make sense which is likely why the Leafs leaned on the latter option. It may seem like a galaxy-brain decision to leave a reigning Calder Trophy finalist out of the lineup when he is available, but given that Knies has stepped up in his absence, the other lines worked well, and Bunting’s beef with the referees, it is understandable that Keefe decided to stick with what works for now.
While I personally don’t fully agree with keeping Bunting out of the lineup for Game 5, I get why they went this route.
Stats from Hockey-Reference.com and Natural Stat Trick.

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