After signing a two-year contract, Michael Bunting discussed his decision to return home to play for his hometown Maple Leaf, his style of play, and the role and opportunity in front of him in Toronto.
Can you tell us about your experience growing up in Scarborough as a Leafs fan?
Bunting: Obviously, growing up in Scarborough and the Toronto area, any kid that loves hockey is a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. I was born a Leafs fan since day one. This is a pretty cool experience to be a part of the organization and to be able to play for them.
Where were your options? Kyle Dubas suggested you maybe took a little less to come home.
Bunting: I had multiple teams reach out to me on free agency day. Some of the others were higher than Toronto’s offer, but the communication I had with Kyle and Sheldon and the opportunity I had to come home and play for my team and compete for a Stanley Cup was definitely worth the pay cut in my mind. I definitely do no regret my decision and look forward to getting going.
Is part of the attraction taking that next step in your career and getting an opportunity to be in the Leafs‘ top six?
Bunting: Yeah. There are a couple of holes right now on the left-wing spot. They communicated to me that those are spots that are open and able to be taken advantage of. That is my goal: to come in here and be able to play with the top guys. They are all exceptional players. I think I would complement their game as well as much as they would complement mine. I am looking forward to getting that shot up there.
What is the key for you to build on your 10 goals in 21 games with Arizona last season and demonstrate in camp that you are worthy of that spot in the lineup?
Bunting: I just have to stick to my game. I kind of went into Arizona with a nothing-to-lose mentality this year when I got called up. I took every opportunity and grabbed it. That is exactly what I plan on doing here. I am the type of guy that goes to the net hard and goes to those dirty areas. I am not going to back down from other players on other teams. That is what I am going to bring to the table every night.
What did you learn from the World Hockey Championship experience? Did you notice the attention on someone like you kind of rise as the tournament went along?
Bunting: Yeah. That was an unbelievable experience. We didn’t start off the way we wanted to, but we ended up closing it out exactly how we planned. That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I didn’t think I was going to head over there, and then Shane Doan gave me a call and said they wanted me to play for them. I didn’t hesitate.
That was a really cool experience going overseas — I had never been to Europe before in my life, and I had never skated on the big ice like that before. It was a different game. I think I adapted pretty well. I had a great time over there.
How did Sheldon Keefe help your game? Did playing for him influence your decision as well?
Bunting: Absolutely. I have had success under Sheldon in the past in the Soo. One thing with Keefer is that he holds you accountable but lets you play your game. He gives you that leash to be able to experiment out there on the ice and play your game. He had a lot of trust in them in the Soo. I really liked playing for him. When that opportunity came again, it was hard to turn it down.
You talked about not being afraid of the opposition. You have been compared to Brad Marchand and Brendan Gallagher that way. Is that part of your game that you developed? Did you have it from the start in the GTHL?
Bunting: I think that just came from day one. I am a very competitive person. I like to win. I always bring that to the table. Even in the GTHL days, I was — as they say — a rat out there. When I am playing my best, I am under the other team’s skin and getting in their faces. That just makes me be in the game even more. That is how I get involved. I really enjoy that role.
How close were you to returning to Arizona?
Bunting: It definitely was an option for me. I had really good conversations with the new coach and Bill Armstrong. It was very close. I have nothing bad to say about Arizona. I had a great time there and a great experience. They started my NHL career. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. I can’t thank them enough for getting this going.
You and Conor Garland spent a lot of time in Tucson trying to get to this point. What is your thought on having to work so hard to make it to the NHL, and now you are both moving on?
Bunting: We reached out to each other and talked about it. It was kind of weird because we have been there for so long. We started there from day one. Obviously, we are both happy for one another and the success we have both had. I wish him luck.
Since being in Tucson on day one, it has been a great experience over there. Tucson has one of the best fan bases in the AHL. It has only been a short period of time since they have been in the league, but it has been unbelievable there. Since getting called up to the Coyotes, the fans have been unreal to me and I can’t thank them enough for welcoming me in.
What are your summer plans now that you’re signed in Toronto?
Bunting: Yeah, I am back in Toronto and I plan to train at the facility with the Leafs to get this going.