Michael Bunting is a pending UFA with the Toronto Maple Leafs at a time that a lot of things are up in the air when it comes to that organization. GM Kyle Dubas is in the final year of his current contract and does not have an extension in place while rumors of interest from other teams are floating around should he shake loose. Head coach Sheldon Keefe may be on the outs if the club doesn’t have a good showing in the playoffs and he could be tied to Dubas’ potential departure. All the while, the roster may undergo drastic changes if Toronto is booted out from another first-round matchup.
If all that happens, where does that leave Bunting? The talented, but often controversial and agitated forward is due for a hefty raise and the Maple Leafs may or may not choose to meet him where the open market might. He’s a Toronto kid and has said he’d like to stay, but he’s bound to get paid by someone, and incidences like the one that happened the other night between Bunting and Keefe don’t often lead to positive vibes around a potential extension.
While on the bench during a game against the Nashville Predators, cameras caught Keefe trying to have a word with Bunting when he came off the ice only to have the player looking away during the entire conversation. Social media ran with the imagery and suggested there might be a rift between the player and the coach — something Bunting denies.
When asked about what happened in the exchange, Bunting responded, “I’ll leave that between Keefer and I, but what I will say is Keefe and I have a good relationship. He added, “We’ve known each other for a very long time, there’s not much to see there. He’s one of the reasons I came to Toronto. We’ll leave it at that.”
Keefe did also comment on the incident and said that he gives the player a lot of leeway in those situations because he knows that they aren’t necessarily ready to have a conversation about a particular moment on the ice right after it happens. “It’s a non-issue for me,” Keefe said. “For me to expect a player coming right from the heat of the battle to sit on the bench and be a true gentleman right where I want to go talk to him, I’m putting myself at risk going into that situation.”
In other words, not only are Bunting and Keefe both shooting down any potential issue, there’s a suggestion here from Bunting that his wagon is hitched to Keefe’s. When he says, “He’s one of the reasons I came to Toronto. We’ll leave it at that,” there’s a sense that he’s suggesting he’s going where Keefe goes. Perhaps that’s a pretty big leap and too big an assumption to make, but if Keefe were to be released as part of whatever changes might come in Toronto, would Bunting follow a coach he actively sought to play for? In other words, not a lot of coaches have the type of relationship these two do. Will that weigh into Bunting’s eventual decision?
What If the Maple Leafs Make a Coaching Change?
Keefe signed a two-year extension with the Maple Leafs on September 30, 2021. He’s signed through the 2023/24 season and when a bench boss has one season left, that opens a window in which organizations might make a coaching change should things go south or the results not be there. In Toronto, one more year on a current deal wouldn’t stop that team from moving on, if they felt the need to do so.
Adding fuel to the fire, Elliotte Friedman recently discussed the topic of a head coaching change when he addressed speculation created by two Globe and Mail pieces from writer Cathal Kelly. In them, Kelly talked about how Brendan Shanahan feels about losing and how the Boston Bruins changing of their coach motivated the current core to a much-improved season. Friedman said the two pieces were not likely meant to be linked and the “tin foil hats” came out in droves when it came to Maple Leafs’ rumors, but he could also understand why a link might be made between the Maple Leafs and the Bruins.
“The Boston Bruins have a renewed energy this year playing under Jim Montgomery,” Friedman said. He added, “…there were some people who viewed this and said, ‘This is a sign.'” Could another sign be what Bunting says about Keefe? If he’s a coach the forward actively wants to play for and has the kind of relationship where the two men can have this kind of heated exchange and be just fine, would Bunting go if Keefe does?
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