With the announcement from Sheldon Keefe before Tuesday’s game versus Detroit that Michael Bunting would not play this week, the Leafs’ top left-winger closes out his first full season in the league with a very impressive 63 points in 79 games. Is that enough to capture Toronto’s 11th Calder Trophy?
There is no shortage of worthy nominees for the rookie of the year trophy. The flashy Anaheim centre Trevor Zegras will likely be at the top of a lot of ballots, as will one, if not both of Detroit’s quality rookies, Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond. Just because Bunting leads the pack in scoring (he holds a 4 point lead over Zegras and a 14 point lead over Seider) that’s not a guarantee that he’s a lock to win the award, although there are a lot of precedents set in that regard.
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In terms of the case against Bunting, there really isn’t one. Naysayers will point to his age and say he’s not a rookie, but both Artemi Panarin and Kirill Kaprizov have won the award in the past decade outside of the “traditional” rookie age, so that cannot be brought into the equation on any legitimate argument against.
Another popular statement among detractors is that he’s a product of playing with Matthews and Marner, but again, one need only look at the past. Panarin played with Patrick Kane, does that diminish how impressive his 77 point rookie season was? Cale Makar plays on one of the most-stacked teams in the NHL and routinely puts up points by simply playing alongside Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, and Nazem Kadri, among others, so it’s hard to imagine that being a valid argument against Bunting.
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It’s important to remember also that Bunting earned his place on the team. When the season began, Bunting was a fourth-liner, and though the fanbase screamed from the heavens at Sheldon Keefe to pair him with Matthews and Marner, (citing a comparable to Zach Hyman,) it was several weeks into the failed Nick Ritchie experiment before he finally decided to make that shift to the lineup.
Bunting found immediate chemistry with his superstar linemates and made the most of his opportunity to take a firm grasp of that first-line left wing slot and keep it. He is the perfect complimentary player who has helped both Matthews and Marner reach new career highs in goals and overall points, while also eclipsing any single season that his predecessor on that line, (and closest comparable,) Zach Hyman ever achieved as a Leaf. And all of that in just over 100 career NHL regular season games.
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The Calder Trophy is Zegras’ or Seider’s to lose at this point. It’s highly unlikely that any player will overtake Bunting’s point total with so few games remaining, although anti-Leaf bias may come into play for some of the voters at the Professional Hockey Writers Association. There is no guarantee that the votes will fall his way, but Bunting has a legitimate claim to at least being one of the three nominated players on the virtue of his exceptional play this season.
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