After pillaging defensive units the length and breadth of the NHL landscape to the tune of a combined 118 goals and 266 points, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top line has been understandably itching to pick up where it left off last year.
Through the team’s first four preseason games, the trio of Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner and Michael Bunting had been on the ice for one game each for a grand total of 60 minutes 57 seconds. And, having been divided up to play in different exhibitions against the Ottawa Senators on the first weekend of training camp, all three were desperately waiting to resume the chemistry experiment they aced so comfortably last term.
It didn’t take them long to make an impact on Monday night in Montreal. With all three on the first power-play unit, and with the Canadiens’ Jonathan Drouin in the box for hooking, Marner and Bunting combined to set up William Nylander to open the scoring just 2:17 into what eventually turned into a 5-1 preseason victory.
But those two assists would be the only scoring contribution from the first line. On the night it was the second line doing most of the damage with Nylander and Alex Kerfoot getting two goals apiece, while Nick Robertson had three assists.
Given the way the three combined so spectacularly last year, with Matthews winning the Hart Trophy on the strength of his 60-goal season, Marner reaching a career-high 97 points and Bunting earning a rookie-of-the-year nomination, head coach Sheldon Keefe was not concerned about the players regaining their scoring touch.
“I’m not worried about the offensive piece,” he said. “I think over time that really comes and that’s something that they’ve proven to be very consistent in, but this time of year you want to see the structure fall in place. And the guys that haven’t played as many games, you want [them] to get out some of the summer habits.”
After becoming the first Maple Leaf to reach the 60-goal plateau, and just the third player in the franchise’s 100-plus-year history to be chosen the NHL’s most valuable player, Matthews naturally captures a lot of the limelight. But with those awards and plaudits already in the rear-view mirror, the California-born centre says that one of the beauties of his line is the desire to push the boundaries of what’s possible.
“I think there’s always room to grow,” he said. “No matter what, regardless whether it’s individually, as a line, as a team as a whole. So we just want to continue to elevate our game and push each other out there. Make sure that every night we’re coming to compete and we’re playing very consistent.”
While Marner and Matthews have had the chance to build an on-ice understanding together, having played in the Toronto organization for the past six seasons, Bunting, who skated last season as a 26-year-old rookie, has been playing catchup. After signing as a free agent last summer following seven years in the Arizona Coyotes organization, he had to wait his turn as Nick Ritchie was given the first chance to fill the vacant left wing spot on the top line that became available when Zach Hyman left for the Edmonton Oilers.
But after being elevated to the line alongside Matthews and Marner in November, Bunting wasted little time showcasing his complementary skill set alongside the pair of all-stars.
“Bunts is a guy that’s not afraid to get around the net, kind of get abused and kind of love it and annoys a lot of people on the ice as well,” Marner said of his linemate on Sunday. “And I think just throughout last year playing with him, he did a really good job of just finding quiet ice and leaking off into spots and kind of just disappearing and being open for give-and-goes and stuff like that.
“I think just as the season went on, we adapted to playing with him, he adapted to playing with us, and it just got better and better. So hopefully he just keeps doing that.”
Though Bunting is the senior member of the trio by two years, it’s probably fair to say he trails in the wake of his younger linemates in terms of NHL star power. However, the Toronto native says that one of the things that underpins the success of the top line is that no one voice carries more weight than the other two.
“I would say all three of us are pretty vocal with one another and always pushing each other,” Bunting said. “And I think that’s what makes us gel is that we’re not afraid to communicate with one another and talk out there, and we have fun doing it, too.”
Following his linemates’ lead, Bunting says that all three are looking to improve on what they did in the past, and if that means that Matthews scores more than 60 goals or if Marner eclipses the 100-point barrier for the first time, that would be just fine with him.
But you won’t find any of the Leafs’ top trio setting personal point or goal targets heading into the regular season.
“I think everybody’s got one goal in mind and I think that’s really the only one that truly matters,” Matthews said, echoing the feelings of everyone in an organization that will enter this season desperately hoping to scratch the NHL’s most agonizing Stanley Cup itch.