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Let’s clear this up. Right off the hop. Michael Bunting is eligible to win the Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year, even if he barely squeaks inside a few margins.
To be eligible, a player cannot have played more than 25 games in any single preceding season. Bunting played 21 games last season with the Coyotes.
Nor can a player have played in six or more games in each of any two preceding seasons in any major professional league. Bunting played in five games for the Coyotes in 2018-19, but he did not earn a single call-up in 2019-20.
Beginning in 1990-91, the eligibility rules changed so that a player could not have reached his 26th birthday by Sept. 15 of the season in which he is eligible. Bunting turned 26 on Sept. 17, making him eligible by two days.
That doesn’t stop the trolls from disparaging his efforts this season.
“I basically get tweeted pretty much every single day with people saying I’m too old,” Bunting said. “It’s kind of funny.”
If 220-pound defensemen can’t deter Bunting from camping out above the crease, a few Twitter trolls operating from a cowardly distance aren’t about to throw him off his game. And what a game he has crafted this season for the Maple Leafs.
Entering Thursday’s game against the Coyotes at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Bunting led all NHL rookies with 20 goals and 46 points despite averaging 15:33 of ice time, which ranks 40th among NHL rookies.
Critics will contend that Bunting is profiting from playing alongside superstars Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner. He is, but that means also facing other teams’ top defensive players. If achieving success with Matthews and Marner were so easy, the Leafs’ original plan for that position, Nick Ritchie, wouldn’t be in Arizona right now. Bunting is in pace for 66 points, which is 25 more than his top-line predecessor, Zach Hyman, achieved in his best season in Toronto.
As The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn notes, Bunting’s Game Score Value Added (GSVA) is a full win ahead of the next best rookie. Bunting leads all rookies in points-per-60-minutes at five-on-five, and he also leads all rookies in relative expected goals percentage, actual goals percentage and penalty differential.
“It’s about understanding what your role is,” said former Coyotes teammate Conor Garland, now with the Vancouver Canucks. “Look where he stands on the ice. He’s the easiest player I’ve ever played with — and I’ve played with a lot of them — because he doesn’t move. He’s just in front. He might pop to the side, but if you shoot and it’s a rebound, he gives it back to you and he goes back to the net.
“When I played with Kells and Schmaltzy (Clayton Keller and Nick Schmaltz), there was more of a conversation like, ‘Okay, I’m going to be net-front when you two are up there, and then you jump in, and then you go up.’ It’s so much easier when you just know who’s gonna be there all the time and that’s why those guys love playing with him.”
After signing a two-year, $1.9-million contract with his hometown Leafs (he admits that he had a better offer from another team), Bunting wasn’t playing with Matthews and Marner at the start of the season. He bounced around lines, even playing on the fourth line.
When Ritchie struggled, Bunting joined Marner and Matthews before a four-game road trip that began on Nov. 21 on Long Island. In the 38 games since that happened, he has 16 goals and 38 points.
“To start off, me, Matty and Mitch actually hang out quite a bit off the ice and always on the road so I think that goes a long way,” Bunting said. “But all three of our games are so different that they complement one another. I personally think Matty is the best goal scorer in the NHL and has one of the best shots. It’s crazy how he releases it.
“Then you’ve got Mitch who is super silky with the puck and he’s always looking for that pass and making unbelievable plays. And then you’ve got myself. I go to the net. I go to the dirty areas. I kind of get beat up and I retrieve those pucks and kind of create space for them, but I also make those little plays. When we start clicking, it is pretty fun to play out there.”
Bunting nearly had his 20th goal of the season in a game against the Canucks on March 5, but at the last second, Garland came from behind and lifted his stick.
“He was screaming at me going back to the bench and I’m laughing, but all the guys on our team were standing, trying to yell back at him and I’m trying to explain, ‘No, he’s fine,'” Garland said. “I could see Matthews was going back door and I just kind of went right for Bunts’ stick and luckily got it like half a second before he scored.
“He’s screaming like, ‘FU,’ and he was slamming his stick because he was mad. It was a big goal. It would have tied the game with like 10 minutes to go.”
Bunting got goal No. 20 in the next game against Columbus, much to Garland’s relief.
“If it was easy, everybody would have 20 goals because where he plays is where you can score 20, but you have to be talented at it,” Garland added. “You have to know how to screen. You have to know how to tip, how to time rebounds.
“He excels at it, and then look at how many goals Matthews has this year when the D is preoccupied with Bunts. There’s a lot of deflections and just a lot of traffic that he causes, but the way he tips pucks and manages time in front is elite.”
Bunting’s main competition for the Calder Trophy will come from Red Wings defenseman Moritz Seider (likely the frontrunner), Ducks forward Trevor Zegras, Red Wings forward Lucas Raymond and Panthers center Anton Lundell. A lot of players wound’t admit to coveting such an award but Bunting is frank about that topic.
“Every player does think about that a bit and it’s kind of hard not to see all the news about it, especially in a market like Toronto, but to be honest, I try to stay away from it,” Bunting said. “I try to not worry about it. I try to go into every single game and just try to play my game. I feel like that’s when I have my most success.
“I’ve kind of realized in the past, when I start thinking about things that I can’t control or let things kind of get in my way, that’s where I don’t play that well. I have this new mindset of just going into every single game and playing my game and that has actually been putting me in the Calder race.”
If Bunting were to win the Calder, he would not be the oldest player to do so. He wouldn’t even be in the top five at 26 years and 224 days. He would, however, be the oldest since the age restriction was put in place for the 1990-91 season.
“There’s nothing that replaces playing in the NHL with the schedule and the travel and the grind,” Garland said. “He is a rookie, especially playing in that market. That’s a lot to take in for your first full season in the NHL. I don’t care if he’s 33. He’s still in his first year and he’s learning a lot of stuff on the fly so I don’t think there’s anything to that argument against him.”
Neither Bunting nor Garland expected to leave Arizona after toiling for so long in Tucson and then finally breaking through at the NHL level. Once it became clear that talks with the Coyotes weren’t going to work out, however, Bunting embraced the idea of returning to his hometown.
“(Coyotes GM) Bill (Armstrong) was great,” Bunting said. “He offered me a great contract and things would have aligned, but I think it was just a matter of being able to come home and play for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I ended up taking a pay cut from other offers just to come home. I wanted to play at home. I wanted to play for the team that I grew up cheering for. I didn’t know if that would ever come up again so I just kind of thought it was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.”
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