All is well between Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe and forward Michael Bunting — or so they say.
During Sunday’s 3-2 victory over the Nashville Predators, Bunting came to the bench late in the third period after one of his 14 shifts in the game – second-fewest on the team. Keefe tried to engage in a conversation with him but the 27-year-old looked away from his bench boss the entire time.
Keefe was caught on camera tapping Bunting’s left shoulder multiple times, hoping he would enter the discussion, but that never happened.
A couple days later, Bunting was asked about the incident involving his head coach and poured cold water on the topic, describing it as a non-issue.
“I’ll leave that between Keefer and I, but what I will say is Keefe and I have a good relationship,” Bunting said following Tuesday’s practice. “We’ve known each other for a very long time, there’s not much to see there. He’s one of the reasons I came to Toronto. We’ll leave it at that.”
And Keefe echoed a similar message, passing Bunting’s actions off as a heat-of-the-moment reaction.
“It’s a non-issue for me,” Keefe said. “I give players a lot of leeway and pass essentially, especially for those who come right off the ice. For me to expect a player coming right from the heat of the battle to sit on the bench and be a true gentleman right where I want to go talk to him, I’m putting myself at risk going into that situation.”
Bunting has shown his emotional personality on more than one occasion during his two seasons with the Maple Leafs, so perhaps there isn’t much to see here. His recent demotion, however, could suggest something else.
The 6-foot winger was removed from the Auston Matthews-Mitch-Marner line a while ago and found himself in the bottom six Sunday, paired with Noel Acciari and Sam Lafferty on the third line. All told, he saw just 12:25 of ice time versus the Predators.
It also appears Calle Jarnkrok has cemented himself alongside Matthews and Marner, with Keefe revealing that Matthews rallied for the versatile forward to remain on the club’s top line. Toronto’s second line, meanwhile, currently features captain John Tavares, William Nylander and Alex Kerfoot.
Lately, though, Keefe feels Bunting has performed well despite having just one goal and two points over his last five games.
“I think Bunts’ game has really improved here in the last one-to-two weeks,” Keefe said of Bunting. “To me, he looks like he’s playing with a clear mind and looks to be finding his game again. I’ve talked to him at length about some offensive things that I think are really important. But to me, his game has been trending in a good direction.”
Bunting shined in his inaugural campaign with Toronto, scoring 23 goals and 63 points over 79 contests, finishing third in Calder Trophy voting. His second season hasn’t gone as well, though, as he sits with 21 goals and 46 points through 73 games.
The Scarborough, Ont., native is in the final season of a two-year deal worth $1.9 million and can become an unrestricted free agent this summer.