Maple Leafs’ Bunting already preparing ‘to show that this year was not a fluke’

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Given a choice, Michael Bunting would be going to the net to make havoc or creating space for one of his superstar Maple Leafs linemates as soon as Saturday night. 

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“Everyone is really excited to see what this team can bring next year,” Bunting said in an interview with the Toronto Sun on Friday. “I can’t wait for this season to start. I want to get it going, even though we have quite some time to go until training camp.”

For Bunting, embarking on his second season with the Leafs will be about taking another step from what he accomplished in 2021-22 after signing a two-year contract with the club in free agency last July. 

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Bunting didn’t win the Calder Trophy this week when the National Hockey League announced award winners on Tuesday night in Tampa, finishing third in voting, but that won’t diminish what he achieved in 79 games with his hometown team. 

A total of 63 points (23 goals and 40 assists) was enough for Bunting to lead all NHL rookies in scoring, though his age — Bunting turns 27 in September — and a stellar season by Detroit Red Wings defenceman Moritz Seider were factors in Calder voting.

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Nevertheless, Bunting fit in well with Hart Trophy winner Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner after earning the opportunity to play on the Leafs’ top line, and though the start of camp remains months away, has an idea of his goal once it starts.

“I have to show that this year was not a fluke,” Bunting said. “I have to be consistent because that’s what good hockey players do. They do it every single year. So definitely, I have to take my game up a level.

“I can’t be comfortable with what I did. I was fortunate that I landed on a spot with Matty and Mitch, and we gelled and we rolled all year together.

“I was proud of myself, the way I handled everything. It was quite the path to get to the NHL. I stuck to my game and believed in myself and I had a pretty successful year by doing all of that.”

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Bunting took a couple of weeks off after the Leafs were eliminated on May 14 in Game 7 of the opening round by the Tampa Bay Lightning, using some downtime to recover fully from a late-season injury that kept him out of Game 1 of the series.

Bunting contributed a goal and two assists in six games against the Lightning. Bunting’s only previous post-season shifts in pro hockey came in 2018, when he played in nine games for Tucson of the American Hockey League. 

The intensity against the Lightning, and the constant back-and-forth fight for each piece of ice, was a bit of an eye-opener for Bunting. 

“I learned how hard it is, (that) it’s a different animal in the playoffs,” Bunting said. “I was happy I was able to experience that because now I know what it takes to go into next year and how I have to pick up my game even more once playoffs hit.

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“(Losing to Tampa) definitely stills hurts. To be honest, I have not watched a lot of hockey. I tune in for maybe a period every game or I just see the boxscore.

“Last year when I was with the (Arizona) Coyotes, we were not in the playoffs, so you didn’t really feel like you were missing out. When you play in the playoffs and you get knocked out, it’s a weird feeling. It’s not a fun feeling, to say the least.”

Bunting has been in the gym for a few weeks and plans to return to the ice in July to prepare fully for what will be a crucial season for him. He is heading for unrestricted free agency next summer and will be in line for a significant raise after finishing a contract that carries an annual average value of $950,000 US.

“I’m going to try to keep that out of my mind as much as I can,” Bunting said. “I don’t want to let that interfere, because if that does come into my mind, it will throw me off playing my game. I just want to focus on winning and helping this team win.”

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