Leaf Michael Bunting adds to his game. Contract negotiations can wait

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Winger Michael Bunting is able to breathe a little easier heading into his second season with the Maple Leafs.

A year ago, Bunting – present for the team’s annual charity golf tournament at Rattlesnake Point in Milton on Monday – arrived as a free agent full of energy but with no guarantee of ice time.

Now, after a successful rookie year on the Leafs’ first line with Hart Trophy winner Auston Matthews and first-team star Mitch Marner, the only question Bunting faces is what he can do for a recall. .

“I was proud of myself, the way I handled it all – being a Scarborough kid playing at home,” said Bunting, 27, who finished with 23 goals and 40 assists in 79 games and was a finalist for Rookie of the Year. “There could have been a lot of pressure, but I put that in the back of my head.

“I worked this summer on (playing) tight, in front of the net and battles. But I also worked on my shooting and being more threatening on the rush, and being able to shoot from distance. So I hope that I can add this to my game. But I (also) have to stick to my game… sort of get rid of it, and I can’t wait to start again.

The same goes for Matthews, who invited the two linemates to his Arizona home for a week of training and fun over the summer. Although Bunting did not elaborate on the encounter – simply calling it “fun” on several occasions during a scrum with reporters – he said the key was to build on the chemistry they had. had developed last season.

“Whatever they say, I’ve dominated tennis,” Bunting joked. “It was just fun hanging out with these guys. Obviously we had success together last year…hopefully we can continue with that.

Bunting missed Game 1 of the playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the spring after a season-ending injury. Although he returned earlier than he would have in the regular season, it was a setback for the top unit on the way to another first-round exit. He hopes his off-season work can help the club go further.

He’s also entering the final season of a two-year deal worth $1.9m (US), but says that’s not on his mind, even in a team with little wiggle room. below the salary cap.

“I guess I’m kind of the guy with the chip on my shoulder and never satisfied,” Bunting said before the start of training camp on Wednesday. “I had success last year and I have to repeat that and continue to do so every year.

“It took me a long time to get into the NHL, and I know how hard it is to get there. And it’s easy to get out of the NHL. I want to prove that last year was no accident.

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