TORONTO — It’s incredible, really.
For all the name-calling, pot-stirring, whistle-generating, and scrum-inciting Michael Bunting does on a nightly basis, the one thing he has avoided through his 170 emotional NHL games is a fight.
Bunting’s NHL card on HockeyFights.com remains as empty as a schoolyard threat.
Heck, in watching back his most recent documented scrap — an AHL exchange versus Nathan Walker on Oct. 19, 2019 — you realize that the “fight” is a nothing-burger. More of a brief wrestling match. Bunting’s gloves come off, but he doesn’t throw a single fist of consequence.
Bunting has become one of the National League’s preeminent pests, thriving in the muck.
The heart-on-his-sleeve winger is beloved in Toronto Maple Leafs quarters and despised down the hall.
As for the officials? They’re suspicious.
“He likes to dive and embellish,” Oilers winger Evander Kane charged Saturday night, post-loss. “You want to get that out of the game, but they prevent guys from the consequences of those actions.
“Fighting is a great deterrent for those type of players and actions. It just prevents guys from having to answer the bell like. He’s a perfect example of that.”
Maple Leafs teammat Mitch Marner watched the nonsense with Kane unfold: “I think Bunts did a good job of keeping his cool, but I don’t know what you want him to do at the end of that. He kept his cool all the way till the very end, and I think eventually everyone’s gonna snap on that kinda thing.”
Bunting suffered more abuse from Kane than vice versa Saturday. He was involved in a pair of saw-off conflicts, going to the box but taking a man with him. Once he got dinged with an embellishment minor, and he was fined $2,000 in February 2022 for the same crime.
Bunting no doubt caught wind of Kane’s verbal wrath elected not to fire back when speaking to reporters after Sunday’s practice.
“I don’t really care, to be honest. I’m not going to lose sleep over it. Yeah, just made a few comments, but I’m not really the type to bring it to the media. So, I’m just going to leave it at that,” Bunting said.
“I play every shift hard.”
If Bunting’s antics can spark retaliation, if he can absorb abuse and throw the NHL’s third-best power-play on the ice, he’s serving the Leafs well.
Bunting’s 37 drawn penalties are the second most league-wide, to Oilers captain Connor McDavid’s 39.
The problem is, McDavid is a net plus-25 in drawn penalties, while Bunting has committed 33 infractions of his own and is only net plus-4.
Last season, Bunting was getting more leeway from the stripes. He was top five in drawn penalties and a net plus-13.
For better or worse, the man has a rep.
Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe hates killing off ill-advised minor penalties, but loves to see emotion bubbling in the top of his lineup.
“It’s being right on that line,” Keefe said.
Following Saturday’s entertaining win, Keefe was asked a question about Marner’s magic and the Maple Leafs stars coming through.
Unprompted, the coach wanted to shift the conversation to the depths of his lineup.
“Noel Acciari was unbelievable in all regards of the game,” Keefe said, switching topics and spreading the love to his bottom-six forward.
Acciari was by no means the headliner in February’s Ryan O’Reilly blockbuster trade with the St. Louis Blues, but he’s been a breath of fresh air for a fourth line desperate for an identity.
“He’s great. All of us really love Cookie ever since he got here. He’s really blended with the team nicely. A guy that plays so hard every night. Doesn’t matter what the situation is, he just gives it his all. Just the physicality he brings to our team has been incredible. He’s changed games and changed momentum by throwing the body, laying a couple big hits. Kinda getting us to wake up a little bit,” Auston Matthews raves.
“He’s a bulldog out there. He hits hard, too.”
Acciari got rewarded with a pair of goals Saturday and already has three with his new club. Goalie Ilya Samsonov handed him the player-of-the-game belt following the 7-4 win.
While Acciari’s ice time (13:18) has dipped form where it was in St. Louis, he’s won most of his faceoffs, has a positive takeaway-to-giveaway ratio (6-2), and is averaging 3.5 hits per game as a Leaf.
“Just a beast,” Marner says. “I knew it playing against him for a while. He’s a hard guy to play against. He’s not afraid to finish any check. He’s hungry on pucks. He’s a guy who has really meshed in quickly with this group and has been a great acquisition.”
The Maple Leafs have been undone in playoffs past because their fourth line either couldn’t be used enough or contributed little when called upon.
Edgy and strong, Acciari has immediately become a “very important” player in Toronto, giving hope for a more meaningful fourth-line contribution when the Leafs face Tampa.
“He’s just a gamer who does whatever it takes to win,” Keefe says.
“He’s made plays, he’s generated shots, he’s getting behind defenders, he’s taking the puck to the net. He’s doing things that show a great capacity for us, lower in our lineup, to be able to play against anybody. A guy who’s no fun to compete against and can chip in for us offensively.”
Can we clone T.J. Brodie?
Keefe wants a shutdown pairing in the mould of last spring’s trusted Jake Muzzin–T.J. Brodie duo.
To that end, the coach is enthused by what he’s seen from recently acquired Jake McCabe to the left of Brodie, and they got a healthy dose of McDavid’s top line Saturday.
Brodie makes every defensive partner better. He’s consistent, smart, easy to read, and adverse to risk.
“Playing with Brodes, he’s such a steady presence for myself with a new team,” McCabe says.
As much as Keefe likes the chemistry, poise, and toughness of this all-defence unit, he still has the thought to tinker.
“I would think at some point you’ll see some things moving around there,” the coach conceded Saturday.
That point could arrive as early as Monday, with McCabe skating alongside Justin Holl at practice and Brodie returning to Morgan Rielly’s right.
It’s a more balanced look, and one that should assist Rielly.
The offensive-minded cornerstone of Toronto’s D corps is a minus-4 on a club plus a plus-48 goal differential. Reilly has gone through more partners this season than a polygamist, and it’s no secret he performs best when linked with a security blanket like Brodie.
The question now becomes: Can McCabe help elevate Holl?
Post-game, centre John Tavares chalked up the feistiness of Saturday’s 36-penalty-minute affair to a couple of good teams fighting for ice and standings points.
But an uncharacteristically nasty retaliatory slash to the hand of Edmonton defenceman Vincent Desharnais earned the Leafs captain a $5,000 fine Sunday morning.
“I have to be better in that scenario, control your emotions better. That’s on me, and I understood it,” Tavares told reporters, accepting his punishment.
“I’m better than that, and I learn from it.”
One-Timers: Monday’s opponent, the Buffalo Sabres, are scrapping for their playoff lives. Beset with injuries, the Sabres have dropped four consecutive games and have slipped seven points out of a wild-card spot. … Defencemen Rasmus Dahlin is day-to-day with an upper-body injury while Mattias Samuelsson is week-to-week with an upper-body injury. Goalie Eric Comrie is week-to-week with a lower-body injury. … With Leafs netminder Ilya Samsonov feeling less than 100 per cent, Matt Murray gets the start for Toronto. He hasn’t finished a game with a save percentage above .885 since his stellar work against Nashville on Jan. 11. … Forward Alex Steeves was called back up by the Leafs, and winger Wayne Simmonds continues to skate with the big club.
Maple Leafs projected lines Monday versus Buffalo Sabres
Kerfoot – Matthews – Marner
Bunting – Tavares – Nylander
Lafferty – Järnkrok
Aston-Reese – Kämpf – Acciari
Rielly – Brodie
Giordano – Liljegren
McCabe – Holl