DETROIT — It seemed like it was just a matter of time until the NHL stepped in to rain on the Michael Bunting parade.
The Toronto Maple Leafs forward is second in the league in penalties drawn (32) through games completed on Feb. 25, 2022. This past week, the NHL issued Bunting a $2,000 fine for his second instance of embellishment this season.
But that’s not going to stop the 26-year-old ‘rookie’ from sticking to his style of play that has won over his teammates and fans of the club.
“I can’t change my game because I am having success,” Bunting said before the Maple Leafs visit the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday. “I don’t want to embellish, I don’t want to be a diver, you don’t want to do any of that, I just got to stick with it and stick to my regular game.”
According to the NHL, Bunting was issued his first warning for embellishment in a game against the Nashville Predators on Nov. 16. The second incident, which incurred the $2,000 fine, was assessed after Bunting was deemed to have fallen down easily when he was crossed up with Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Marcus Pettersson.
“You just move on,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said about the incident. “Because he’s involved in everything, eyes are on him a lot.”
Bunting has become the everyday left-winger on a line with star forwards Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. It didn’t start that way for the Scarborough, Ontario native, who signed a two-year, $1.9 million contract with the Leafs this past summer. But after taking a turn on all four lines this season, the chemistry with Matthews and Marner is evident.
The most recent example of this is the last time the line connected on a goal against the Minnesota Wild on Thursday. After Matthews took away the puck in the neutral zone, Bunting had to hustle out of the attack zone. That allowed Matthews and Marner to connect for a goal on the ensuing play.
After that game, Matthews’ praised Bunting’s ability to get back on side after the takeaway in the neutral zone.
“It’s funny because I was yelling at him as I was trying to get out because I was deep in the corner,” Bunting said.
On Friday, Marner talked about a specific trait of Bunting’s that he’s noticed.
“He’s staring constantly at people,” Marner said on Thursday. “I don’t know. A lot of people don’t like getting stared at.”
Bunting, initially skeptical, admitted that he does indeed stare at his opponents.
“That’s pretty funny, I guess I do that,” Bunting said. “I don’t really notice I do that. Mitch doesn’t let anything slip by him. He’s always on the ball with that kind of stuff, so that’s pretty funny.”
Bunting has 17 goals and 35 points in 51 games this season. Three of his 17 goals came at Little Caesars Arena, when the club visited last month.
“Matty was chirping me asking if I’ll have the same pre-game meal,” Bunting said. He later said he likely will eat the same meal (chicken and pasta).
Bunting’s physical play has been a welcomed addition but he’s got the skills to go along with it. That should serve the Leafs well down the stretch with just over two months to go in the regular season.
More importantly, Bunting has become that reliable first-line winger that was in question when Zach Hyman departed for the Edmonton Oilers in free agency.
“The big thing with Bunts is he’s just an absolute competitor,” Keefe said. “He’s giving everything that he has on every single shift and he’s not going to let anyone get a leg up on him.”
Even if he takes the odd fine or two.