Following day one of the Arizona Coyotes training camp, Scarborough native Michael Bunting — who turned 20 yesterday, making him just old enough to potentially be an AHL player this season — was confident that he’s been prepared to play against the bigger competition that pro players can offer.
That could just be the case before long.
The crafty left wing was a standout at the team’s development camp, and his strong performance earned him a three year entry-level deal with the club that drafted him 117th overall. An absentee prospect from Arizona’s development camps in the summer of 2014 due to an illness, though, Bunting is expected to be a strong contender at training camp this week.
He’s using the rookie development camp that took place in July, along with the team’s rookie training days last week, to help him adjust to the faster paced game — and then he’s using the stronger, more mature competition that regular training camp has to offer to help him hit the ground running. He’s learning to play both with and against a higher quality of competition — at every position — than is offered at the major junior level.
It’ll take some adjusting to get used to the bigger goalies, stronger defensemen, and higher on-ice awareness that the pro level has to offer, but Bunting isn’t worried. He’s excited to develop a role on the ice for the Coyotes — and he knows exactly who he wants to play like.
That would be Brad Marchand.
“For sure, Brad, you know, he likes to get under people’s skin,” said Bunting, talking about the style of play that he wants to emulate in the future.
“He’s dependable — he can put the puck in the net, and he’s very reliable.
If I can model my game like that, I think I’ll be very successful.”
Bunting himself is a reliable enough player; he’s a draft selection of former Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds GM Kyle Dubas, who saw promise in the multi-sport athlete who opted to focus on hockey much later in the game than most.
The three-time athlete of the year for Cardinal Newman High School in Scarborough, Ontario turned heads when he went from playing double-AA to triple-AAA just one year before becoming draft eligible, then crushed his combine tests — and despite predictions that he could have been picked up as early as the second round, the Coyotes snagged him late in the fourth. He’s a testament to playing the game because you love it, and playing at the level that’s best for both the player and their family; the story of Bunting saving his family some cash by opting out of the highest tier development leagues is certainly starting to make the rounds. He suggested prior to the draft that remaining versatile and leaving his options open helped the Toronto-area teen retain his passion for hockey over the years — and it’s certainly showing.
He’s been easy to spot on the ice at training camp, playing with speed and connecting with his linemates with seeming ease.
It’s more than just his on-ice play, though. The all-around athlete is aware of his own strengths and weaknesses; he knows what he already has to make him Marchand-esque, and he knows what he still needs to work on.
“I’ve got [Marchand’s] work ethic,” said Bunting.
“Around the net, in and around the offensive zone, I think we’ve very similar. I don’t give up on pucks very easily, so I think we’re a lot alike like that.”
Where he still needs to work? “The defensive zone,” admits the Coyotes winger.
“He’s very good in his D-zone, and I think if I can develop my game to be more like that, I can play just like him.”
Bunting confirmed that he didn’t spend much time on the penalty kill while with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, but that’s certainly something he’d like to change — and that only further confirms the self-awareness that Soo Director of Player Personnel Victor Carneiro pointed out is prevalent in Bunting’s game and personal assessment. He knows what he already brings to the ice to be the kind of player he wants to be, but also has plenty that he’s looking to add — and knows exactly where he needs to add it.
Carneiro pointed out that Bunting plays with skill and edge, and the Soo director’s evaluation of Bunting’s game is remarkably similar to Bunting’s own assessesment of himself.
“He knows there is a fine line between being a pest on the ice without hurting his own team,” suggests Carneiro, “but Michael’s game is more than just being a pest. Michael has the ability to score and that goes back to his days in minor hockey.”
“Michael’s game is one of skill and playing on the edge […] and he’s a difficult to player to play against, as he can get under the opposition’s skin.”
Going beyond the kind of player that Bunting is, though, there’s a lot to like about him from even the short sample that Coyotes fans have seen — both in his time playing at rookie camp with fellow winger Nick Merkley and during training camp with Brendan Shinnimin. He won’t be playing with Merkley any longer (the 30th overall draft selection was injured in a rookie pre-season exhibition game against the Los Angeles Kings last week and will be out for two weeks), but luckily he’s billed for a versatile game — flexibility is a strong suit for the up-and-coming forward.
With 74 points in just 57 games for the Greyhounds in the 2014-2015 season, it’s hard to believe that Bunting had only been a CHL sophomore last year. He was in his first year of OHL play leading up to the NHL draft — and he was one of the oldest players to be suiting up as a 2013 OHL draftee, nonetheless. He was drafted as a ’95 birthday in with the ’97 players in the OHL; as such, he’s got the option to hit the AHL next year.
The Coyotes have a surplus of young talent in the pipeline right now, to the point where head coach Dave Tippett suggests there are almost twice as many rookies who could compete for NHL jobs this year as initially expected. The first day of practice, though, Tippett pointed out that the club may rotate a few of the waiver-exempt players in and out of the NHL lineup; if that’s the case, Bunting in the AHL gives him the opportunity to push for that chance to surprise everyone. Last year, it was rookie Tobias Rieder — this year, if Bunting has his way, it could be him.
There have been countless arguments over the ‘age of the enforcer’, and the potentially diminishing role of gritty physical players in the NHL in coming years. The kind of player that’s replacing them, though, is the skilled pest — and that’s what Bunting wants to be. With enough hard work, it’s not hard to imagine this Scarborough kid in the Sedona Red before too long.