Rookie of the year?

Toronto’s Michael Bunting on playing for the Leafs, making the cut off for the Calder and growing up in the GTA

It seems as if the stars have aligned for Michael Bunting.

The 26-year old GTA native (born in Scarborough) is living the dream most young hockey players can only long for: suiting up in the blue and white jersey of his childhood heroes, gliding onto the ice underneath flashing lights and the sounds of screaming fans across North America.

There’s playing, and then there’s having the kind of Cinderella season Bunting is enjoying. He’s been so impressive, even among the top in the league in rookie scoring, that he’s being seriously considered for the Calder Trophy, the award given to the NHL’s most outstanding rookie. His consideration, too, seems like a lucky bounce. Just like scoring a nice goal in front of the net, he was on the right path to be in the right place at the right time.

He’s come a long way from Arizona, where he started his NHL career by playing a handful of games with the Coyotes. Over the summer, he had the opportunity to play for his hometown team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and he knew he couldn’t pass up the chance. Skating on a line with Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner, he’s been given the chance of a lifetime, and that’s not something Bunting takes for granted.

“When free agency came around this summer, and Kyle [Dubas, the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager] reached out to my agent, it was kind of a no-brainer,” he says. “For me, it was kind of an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up because you never know if it would ever pop up again to play for your home city and play for the team that you grew up cheering for.”

Bunting grew up in Toronto living the kind of life that many Torontonians might relate to — completely immersed in hockey. He attended Blessed Cardinal Newman Catholic school and spent evenings and weekends playing and practicing, playing double-A hockey with the Toronto East Enders, then later the Scarborough Young Bruins. In between the games, Bunting says his go-to spots to eat and hang out with friends were the Old Stone Cottage Pub and Wimpy’s Diner at Kennedy Rd. and St. Clair Ave.

He was the kind of kid who played a little bit of every sport, including soccer and softball as a child and baseball, badminton, tennis and volleyball in high school. But hockey was always number one.

“Every Saturday night my family would be around the TV watching the Leafs,” he says. So getting the call to play for his favourite team was a true storybook moment.

“Everyone’s thrilled, my whole family, even my buddies. I remember when I signed the contract and they announced it. All my buddies were freaking out for a little bit,” Bunting says. “A lot of them texted me just not really believing it because they’ve always been Leafs fans, and now one of their close buddies is going to be playing there every single night.”

If the novelty of getting to play for his dream team has worn off, it’s probably been renewed by the news that he’s in the running for the NHL’s rookie of the year award. To be eligible for the Calder Trophy, a player must not be older than 26 years old on Sept. 15, 2022. Bunting’s 27th birthday is two days later on Sept. 17. Eligibility rules also require the player to have appeared in less than 25 games in a single preceding season or six or more games in any two preceding NHL seasons. His time with the Coyotes saw Bunting appear in 21 games last season (where he scored 16 points), and five games two seasons ago. But heading into this season, individual success wasn’t something on Bunting’s mind.

“To be honest, coming into this season, I had no idea. And then everything came out in the media. So then I started learning that I am eligible. And, obviously, that would be something cool,” Bunting says. “Everyone wants individual success, but I try not to think about it as much, so I try to just kind of stick to my game. I feel like if I start worrying about that kind of stuff too much, it’ll distract me from the main goal, which is winning and, hopefully, going far in the playoffs.”

But there are some people who think that Bunting may be too close to call. They believe voting for him as rookie of the year would be offside, and his eligibility shouldn’t count.

The play call, they think, should be reversed.

The Detroit Red Wings’ Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond, the Florida Panthers’ Anton Lundell, and the Anaheim Ducks’ Trevor Zegras, they argue, are the more traditional candidates who should be considered and voted for. It’s them, not Bunting, who deserve their name on the score sheet.

Sports website The Score lists Zegras as the prime rookie of the year candidate. They list his show-stopping highlights and impressive point-per-game pace on a team far less talented than the Maple Leafs as reasons for the 21-year old forward’s superiority.

The website slots Bunting into third place in the Calder Trophy race, noting that his age could be a major detractor when it comes to voting time. It could be the thing that undermines his impressive performance, effectively erasing the fact that Bunting scored a hat trick against Seider and Raymond in a Jan. 29 contest against the Red Wings.

No matter how it plays out, Bunting is just happy to be playing where he is, playing for the team that was home to some of his favourite players of all time growing up.

“I grew up liking Darcy Tucker. It was that era of him and Tie Domi; they were so fun to watch. Tucker was a really gritty kind of guy, and so was Domi,” he says. “And then obviously Mats Sundin; he was one of the best players in Toronto, maybe in history.”

So Bunting is especially honoured by the comparisons he’s been getting to Tucker so early in his career.

“Darcy was a big part of the organization for a long time. He wore his heart on his sleeve every single night,” he says. “He wasn’t afraid to get into the other team’s faces. He would contribute offensively. So yeah, that’s fine by me.”

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