Maple Leafs Reliving Familiar Situation With Bunting Match Penalty


Toronto Maple Leafs forward Michael Bunting has been known for being an agitator and a player who can get under the opponent’s skin. 

In the second half of this season, we started to see a trend with Bunting as he was starting to stray from what made him successful as a top-six forward. He was inconsistent overall and started to voice his displeasure with missed calls, becoming a target for the officials. His overall production took a dip going form 63 points to 49 in the regular season, being demoted from the top line. Bunting has always played with an edge but needed to stay within the line and not cross it. 

2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 1 Tampa Bay Lightning Toronto Maple Leafs
Round 1 Tampa Bay Lightning Toronto Maple Leafs (The Hockey Writers)

Well, Bunting crossed the line in Game 1 of their series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, as he received a match penalty for a hit to the head on defenseman Erik Cernak

The Maple Leafs had an embarrassing outing as they didn’t have the start they needed to win. They were down 3-0 after the first, lacked energy, showed nerves, and the officiating was downright awful, but that penalty changed the tide of the game when the Maple Leafs started to show some life. Which begs the question, instead of re-signing Bunting, has he already shown his way out with a penalty like a familiar face did years ago?  

Bunting Took a Selfish and Dangerous Penalty

Before he took the penalty, Bunting was doing a great job of staying within the line. He was mixing it up after the whistle and even drew a penalty, despite not getting many calls his way during the latter part of the regular season. Everything was going well until midway through the second period. 

Michael Bunting Toronto Maple Leafs
Michael Bunting, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

After a faceoff, Bunting was engaging in a battle with Cernak. As they were going for the puck, he extended his elbow up and caught Cernak on the side of the head and took a nasty fall as a result of that hit. Head coach Sheldon Keefe felt that Bunting was trying to win a race and Cernak wasn’t expecting the hit

Even with the officiating being criticized throughout the game, that is something that you can’t do in the post season as it’ll give the opposition more fuel in a game where the Lightning were dominating in every aspect. That was an undisciplined and selfish penalty for Bunting to take after the team managed to find some life in the period with back-to-back powerplay goals. As a result, the Maple Leafs were shorthanded and the floodgates opened with two goals, one being on a 5-on-3 after a failed coaches challenge.

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The Maple Leafs were down one player that could’ve played a pivotal role for all the right reasons. Instead, Bunting became a liability for them as the team was shorthanded for the last half of the game and possibly more. With everything that has occurred with the officiating before the playoffs, it was only a matter of time before something happened where the officials could throw the book at him. 

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This was that moment. Considering it was a match penalty, he is already facing a hearing and possible supplemental discipline from the league.

Similar to Kadri’s Undisciplined Play

We understand that players want to get into it in the playoffs. They want to be physical and set the tone, but when you cross the line as Bunting did, it puts your team in jeopardy. That hit brings back memories that Maple Leafs fans don’t want to bring up.

Nazem Kadri played exactly the same style that Bunting did and still does. He’s skilled, effective on the attack and can be a thorn in the side of the opponents. When he was on his game, he was a key player for the team. When the intensity rose and the emotions got the best of him, that was when things went south very quickly.

Boston Bruins Zdeno Chara Toronto Maple Leafs Nazem Kadri Jake DeBrusk
Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara pulls Toronto Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri off teammate Jake DeBrusk. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Mary Schwalm)

In back-to-back playoffs Kadri was suspended for three games in 2018 and once again in 2019 where he ended up missing the rest of the series for a cross-check on Boston Bruins forward Jake DeBrusk. Those instances ultimately led to him being moved to the Colorado Avalanche, where he eventually ended up winning a Stanley Cup in 2022. It was a move that needed to be done.

In both situations with Bunting and Kadri, the officiating wasn’t great, but the calls that lead to their ejection were warranted as they were dangerous and clear violations. This team is now facing a major case of déjà vu with a key player playing undisciplined hockey and ultimately getting nailed for it.

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Everything that could go wrong did and that’s not something the Maple Leafs need as they try to look to refocus and get back on track after a disastrous start to the playoffs.

Has Bunting Run Himself Out of Town?

Given the serious nature of Bunting’s hit, he’s definitely facing a suspension. How long is anyone’s guess. It’s also possible that he may have played his final game as a Maple Leaf. Given how things ended with Kadri, this is definitely history repeating as general manager Kyle Dubas is in a familiar spot that he probably doesn’t want to be in. 

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It’s all but likely that Matthew Knies will be inserted into the lineup and Calle Jarnkrok could find himself on the top line once again. Knies looked great in his first three games and Jarnkrok provided the same energy and more offensive consistency than Bunting did with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner– scoring their third goal of the game. With a key player out for an unknown amount of time, it’s on them to step up in his absence.

Matthew Knies Toronto Maple Leafs
Matthew Knies, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images)

You can definitely see the frustration in Bunting boil over in the second half of the regular season. He tried to do everything he could to not get involved, but when the playoffs hit that’s when emotions can get the best of you. The Maple Leafs need a player that can still play with an edge, they need someone that can keep things in check and not cross that line. Bunting ultimately showed that he can’t with that hit and that alone might end his time in Toronto.

Given everything that surrounds this team– playoff failure, stars not getting it done in do or die moments– this is one thing the Maple Leafs did not need as they look to right the past. With Bunting out of the picture for now, it’s a massive loss given what many have seen he can do and excel at it. When they needed him at his best and in control, he wasn’t there. 

Much like Kadri, Bunting is now in the same boat where his future with the team could be in doubt as his play happened at a less than ideal time. Could he get a second chance like Kadri? Possibly, but patience might be wearing thin. 

The coach and the opposition are definitely on notice. If he can’t keep his emotions in check, it could the end of Bunting in Toronto.

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