The Toronto Maple Leafs Michael Bunting scored the team’s first goal of the season and then sort of disappeared. However, in Tuesday’s 5-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, Bunting had his best game of the season as he put up three points in the team’s winning effort.
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Bunting Has Not Had an Easy Season Thus Far
Bunting has had a difficult season. He certainly didn’t pick up where he left off in 2021-22. Last season, once he became the left-winger on the team’s first line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, he started to roll. In fact, he scored 23 goals and added 40 assists (for 63 points) in 79 games. He was voted third in the Calder Trophy race as the NHL’s rookie of the year.
Things have been different this season. With Matthews and Marner off to – at least for the two of them – a relatively slow start, he’s been moved all over the place. As a result, he’s struggled to score like he did last season.
Against the Penguins, when Matthews and Marner were split up, Bunting was moved back to the left-wing spot on the team’s first line. He took advantage of that move by scoring two goals and adding an assist. The Maple Leafs played perhaps their best game of the season to beat the Penguins by a 5-2 score. And, there was Bunting back in the midst of the offense.
Bunting Almost Scores a Hat Trick
The 27-year-old Bunting would have scored his second hat trick with the Maple Leafs in the final going; however, his shot on the empty net from his own blue line sailed just wide. Fortunately, William Nylander gathered the rebound off the end boards to score his own goal.
The question is “What should the Maple Leafs do with Bunting?” Prior to his breakout on Tuesday, he had registered just a single assist in his last 10 games. However, the top-six line shuffles not only energized the Maple Leafs as a team; but, they also seemed to give Bunting a spark. His offense came to life.
His two goals doubled his total for the 2022-23 season. Now, obviously, he’s scored four goals and added five assists (for nine points) in 17 games.
Related: Five Maple Leafs Takeaways in 5-2 Win Over the Penguins
Maple Leafs Head Coach Sheldon Keefe Praised Bunting After the Game
After the game during the media questions and answers, Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe praised Bunting’s work on the night.
As Keefe noted. “I thought it was Bunts’ best game of the season today in terms of how he held onto pucks, battled, and competed. The goals, of course, are really great, but those are ones that will generally come when he plays like he did tonight. He was really good.”
Then Keefe moved from commenting on Bunting to commenting on the team as a whole. Keefe noted that “It was good to see Bunts come through … (but) … Mitch and John got two big goals for us in the first period that got us going in the game. I thought we got really good efforts throughout the lineup.’
Now What With Bunting?
Given the way the team played with the split up of Matthews and Marner, it’s likely that this lineup change will continue until it doesn’t work any longer. Honestly, it would make sense to separate Matthews and Marner – the two top offense producers on the team. That way, the team’s two top lines would be more balanced. That’s exactly what happened against the Penguins.
If that’s the case, there’s a good chance Bunting will find himself on the left wing of the team’s first line. He plays a complementary game to Matthews and Nylander. He mucks it up in front of the net and works hard digging for pucks out for his more skilled linemates.
To me, Bunting seems a perfect fit for those other two skilled scorers. If he stays there, can he score 20 goals again after such a slow start?
It would be fun to see if you’re a Maple Leafs’ fan.
Related: MAPLE LEAFS’ MATTHEWS “KIND OF” EXPLAINS CHEMISTRY WITH NYLANDER
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