From the beginning it looked as though Michael Bunting, who grew up in Scarborough on Toronto’s east side, was meant to play for the Maple Leafs. In the fall, he scored a goal in his first pre-season game – and then had three in the next.
“Growing up where I did, anyone that loved hockey was a Maple Leafs fan,” Bunting said. “For a Scarborough kid it is definitely a dream come true.”
He is a 26-year-old winger and in half of a season has become a fan favourite. He is not quite as accomplished but possesses a little bit of Brad Marchand’s nastiness and Brendan Gallagher’s grit around the net.
That is because of the working-class environment from which he came.
“When you are from Scarborough, you grind to get what you get,” Bunting said.
On Saturday night Bunting recorded a hat trick in Toronto’s 7-4 victory in Detroit over the Red Wings. The game was televised as part of CBC’s annual celebration of Hockey Day in Canada. The daylong event was hosted from a community rink in – wait for it – Scarborough.
“It’s funny,” Bunting said afterward. “Jason Spezza said to me, ‘You can’t write that stuff.’ It was definitely a special moment for me.”
Through 40 games, Bunting has 12 goals, which is the fourth-most on the team. It is two more than he had in 21 games for Arizona during the 2021-22 campaign, and one fewer than Tanner Jeannot of Nashville, who holds the lead among NHL rookies.
To be considered a rookie, a player must not have appeared in more than 25 NHL games in any preceding seasons, nor in six or more in each of any two that preceded.
He did appear in five games with the Coyotes in 2018-19 but spent the following year in the AHL, which means he still qualifies as a rookie.
At US$950,000 for this season and next, his contract in Toronto is a bargain. Nick Ritchie, whom he has displaced on the left wing, was brought in for US$2.5-million and has struggled badly.
As a free agent, Bunting had offers from other teams for more money but opted instead to come home. The club signed him to muck around the net and provide secondary scoring and he has done just that.
In Saturday’s win, he tipped one puck in and whacked another into the net in mid-air. The third he scored from close range off a slick pass from Mitch Marner.
With the Maple Leafs trailing 4-2 at the end of the second period, he also rallied to the defence of teammate Travis Dermott after he was taken down by Moritz Seider.
“I am a very competitive person and I like to win,” Bunting said. “When I play my best, I am under the other team’s skin. I enjoy that role.”
His coach and teammates enjoy it, too. Afterward, Dermott apologetically likened him to a rat for the way he skulks around the net.
“He is not out there to make friends,” said Sheldon Keefe, the Toronto coach. “He makes no apologies for how he goes about it. I like that about him.”
Rasmus Sandin, who scored for the first time this season, is among Bunting’s admirers.
“You never know what to expect from him,” Sandin said. “He can start a fight, he can do everything. He’s a great addition to our team and we all love having him out there.”
Drafted in the fourth round in 2014 by Arizona, Bunting travelled a challenging road to the NHL. After playing two years for Sault Ste. Marie in the OHL, he spent parts of six seasons in the AHL, and part of one in the East Coast League.
It wasn’t until 2021 that he really got a look in the NHL and impressed.
“It was just a matter of getting that opportunity to show I belong,” Bunting said. “Once I got it, I ran with it.”
Toronto plays again on Monday night against the New Jersey Devils at Scotiabank Arena. It is 27-10-3 and continues to hold down third place in the Atlantic Division.
Mostly the Maple Leafs won ugly against Detroit with the exception of Bunting’s first hat trick for Toronto. Oddly enough, he had one last year with Arizona – so officially he has had two for different teams in two different seasons and yet is still a rookie.
“It definitely feels good,” Bunting said. “Everyone wants to do well individually, but it made it even more fun since we got the win.
“Hopefully I can keep putting the puck in the net. I want to help the team win anyway I can.”