By Mark ZwolinskiSports Reporter
Mon., Sept. 19, 2022timer2 min. read
updateArticle was updated 4 hrs ago
Winger Michael Bunting is able to breathe a bit easier entering his second season with the Maple Leafs.
A year ago, Bunting — on hand for the team’s annual charity golf tournament at Rattlesnake Point in Milton on Monday — arrived as a free-agent addition full of energy but with no ice-time guarantees.
Now, after a successful rookie year on the Leafs’ top line with Hart Trophy winner Auston Matthews and first-team all-star Mitch Marner, the only question Bunting faces is what he can do for an encore.
“I was proud of myself, of how I handled everything — being a Scarborough kid playing at home,” said the 27-year-old Bunting, who finished with 23 goals and 40 assists in 79 games and was a finalist for rookie of the year. “There could have been a lot of pressure, but I put that at the back of my mind.
“I worked this summer on (playing) in tight, in front of the net, and battles. But I also worked on my shot and being more of a threat on the rush, and being able to shoot from afar. So I hope I can add that to my game. But I (also) have to stick to my game … kind of whack away at it, and I look forward to doing that again.”
So does Matthews, who invited both linemates to his Arizona home for a week of training and fun over the summer. While Bunting didn’t go into detail about the get-together — simply calling it “fun” several times during a scrum with reporters — he said the key was to build on the chemistry they developed last season.
“Whatever they say, I dominated in tennis,” Bunting joked. “It was just fun hanging out with those guys. Obviously we had some success together last year … hopefully we can keep rolling with that.”
Bunting missed the first game of the playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the spring after a late-season injury. While he returned sooner than he might have in the regular season, it was a setback for the top unit on the way to another first-round exit. He hopes his off-season work can help the club go farther.
He’s also entering the final season of a bargain two-year deal worth $1.9 million (U.S.), but says that isn’t on his mind, even on a team with little room to manoeuvre under the salary cap.
“I guess I’m kind of the guy with a chip on my shoulder and never satisfied,” Bunting said ahead of Wednesday’s start of training camp. “I had success last year and I have to repeat that, and keep it coming every year.
“It took me a while to get into the NHL, and I know how hard it is to get there. And it’s easy to get out of the NHL. I want to prove last year wasn’t a fluke.”