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TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter

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TORONTO — Call Michael Bunting “a greasy rat” and he’ll grin. It’s because he must have had an excellent night.

Such was the case for Bunting when he scored a hat trick in the Maple Leafs’ 4-0 preseason win over the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday. It was teammate Kurtis Gabriel who interrupted Bunting’s intermission interview with the compliment, and while Bunting admits Gabriel “scared me a bit” jumping in with the comment, it was the type of praise Bunting appreciates. 

“I think that's the way I get into a game is getting the other team after me or to get in their head,” Bunting said after practice on Thursday. "I feel like that's when I'm playing my best. When they're chasing after me and not worried about the game that helps us out so I don't mind playing that role.”

Neither does coach Sheldon Keefe. 

“One thing I know about Michael Bunting is he usually leaves the game as one of the most hated players on the ice,” Keefe said. “I've come to expect that from him in terms of reactions that he gets from other teams. But I think that's a positive thing; he's not out there to make friends, he's out there to score goals and help this team win and he make some apologies about how he goes about it. I like that about him.”

Keefe has more experience watching Bunting than most, and is familiar with the unconventional path he took to the NHL. 

Growing up in Scarborough, Ontario, Bunting didn’t get recruited to any of the Greater Toronto Area’s elite squads and cut his teeth playing high school hockey. He finally earned one season with the AAA Don Mills Flyers’ U-18 team in 2012, and then was drafted 160th overall by the Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds in the 2013 Ontario Hockey League’s Priority Selection. 

It was in the Soo that Bunting met then-general manager Kyle Dubas (now GM of the Leafs) and Keefe, who was the Greyhounds’ head coach. Bunting parlayed a strong rookie season in the OHL (42 points in 48 games) into being selected by the Arizona Coyotes in the fourth-round, 117th overall, in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. 

And then Bunting's real work began.  

The now 26-year-old would bounce around the American Hockey League for the next four years, not making his NHL debut until December 2018. He appeared in five games for the Coyotes and was sent back to the AHL, where he remained under another recall in March 2021.

Back in the NHL, Bunting never left. He tallied 10 goals in 21 games for Arizona to finish the season and became a coveted unrestricted free agent in July. Weighing multiple offers from interested parties, Bunting ultimately decided to sign a two-year, $1.9 million deal with the club he cheered for as a kid – and gave Toronto a hometown discount to boot. 

“I was a late bloomer,” Bunting said. “The road I took to get here isn't the normal one that everybody takes so I take pride in that and I [embrace] it every day that you can't take this thing for granted, it can go just as fast as it can come. You appreciate it a little bit more [because] it did take a little bit for me to get here, it has been a grind.”

Wayne Simmonds, who also grew up in Scarborough a few years ahead of Bunting, can appreciate his path to success more than most. 

"Scarborough sticks together," Simmonds said. "We had a lot of time to chat [since meeting in training camp] and [compare] our life's paths. Like how we grew up playing and both of us played double A. He didn't get to junior until he was 18 and I didn't play junior until I was 18 as well. So what we went through as young kids playing hockey was the same and we have a pretty strong bond because of that."

Just like Simmonds before him, Bunting is ready to make his mark on the NHL. Keefe slotted him onto a line with John Tavares and William Nylander to start training camp last week, and Bunting has tallied four goals in two preseason games thus far. And he hasn’t used exhibition as an excuse to go easy on the opposition, hence Gabriel’s approval of his pestering. 

“He certainly is a guy that makes no friends on the ice, and that's part of what makes him who he is,” Keefe said. “Just in terms of the hunger and the competitiveness he has around the net, [it’s] because he's always looking to get an edge on you. I'm really happy that he's gotten the results that he's gotten here in the first two games. It allows his confidence to grow, allows him to settle in here with us.”

When Zach Hyman left the Leafs for Edmonton in free agency last July, there was plenty of concern about who would take his place as a top-six left winger in Toronto. Bunting isn’t the same player as Hyman, but his skill set is something the Leafs are lacking. And Bunting has used all resources available to him in trying to perfect it.

Back in Arizona, Bunting picked the brain of former head coach Rick Tocchet on how to toe the line between skill player and general annoyance. Tocchet played more than 1,100 NHL games and scored 952 points doing just that. In stature, Tocchet was larger in stature (6-foot, 214 pounds) than Bunting (5-foot-11, 196 pounds), but he was happy to share tricks of the trade with a fellow Scarborough offspring. 

"I think he was a little tougher than me,” Bunting said of Tocchet. “But he’s not afraid to mix it up, and we would talk about that and he would give me advice about how [to] play on the edge and be able to put it in the net as well because he was able to put up numbers.”

So far, Bunting has been able to do exactly that in the NHL. Granted it’s still early in the Leafs’ exhibition schedule, and critics are quick to point out Bunting’s sample size last season was too small to really judge him on. But Bunting is used to being doubted – it’s helped create the player he is. And that’s everything the Leafs are looking for. 

“I know the history of Bunts...he's just got a chip on his shoulder, in terms of how he's how he's come up through the hockey ranks,” Keefe said. “He plays with a lot to prove every night and he's out there to try to make the best of every opportunity he can and I like those qualities about him. That’s what I think makes you believe a player like him always has a chance, and here he is in the NHL. Those are the kind of guys you don't want to bet against.”