Michael Bunting lost the respect of officials and opposing players. The Leafs forward can still earn it back

In some ways I feel bad for Michael Bunting.

What was once a source of pride in the Maple Leafs forward’s game — an uncanny ability to draw penalties and irritate the opposition — has turned into a distraction and it seems he and the Leafs are caught between a rock and a hard place on how to move forward with less than two weeks until the playoffs begin.

Is it solely on Bunting to figure out how to get past the predicament he finds himself in with NHL officials, or can Leafs president Brendan Shanahan or general manager Kyle Dubas lean hard on the NHL hockey operations department to cut Bunting some slack?

As someone who also loved to draw penalties during my playing days, I can tell you it gives players a great sense of accomplishment when you come back to the bench knowing you’ve given your team’s top guns two full minutes to alter the outcome of the hockey game.

First and foremost, let’s recognize that Bunting is among the league leaders in penalties drawn; it’s an accomplishment and it shouldn’t automatically label you a “diver.”

The truth is Bunting and the likes of Brad Marchand, the Tkachuk brothers and Pierre-Luc Dubois are great at drawing penalties; some NHL players are simply better at it than others. They have an uncanny ability to attract tripping, hooking and holding penalties and it requires good body positioning, angling and impeccable timing when you feel the initial contact.

For the last 20 or so games, however, it’s been Bunting’s inability to draw penalties that has garnered major attention and some questions as to why.

But let’s re-establish the fact that the standard in officiating changes over the course of the season. Many believe what should be a penalty in October should also be one in April. It’s a great concept in theory, but historically that’s not been the case and it won’t be this spring.

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Refs never want their calls to solely decide the outcome of a game or a series. It’s the main reason why fewer penalties get called at the end of every season and in the playoffs.

Most Leafs fan would be content with that being the only reason why Bunting is not getting the calls. We all know it’s much deeper than that.

A large part of Bunting’s game revolves around goading and luring players into the penalty box. This is where it gets complicated.

Case in point came against Detroit on Sunday night when Bunting hit Red Wings defenceman Jake Walman from his blindside as he finished passing the puck up ice. It wasn’t a hit the refs deemed worthy of a penalty at this time of year, but one Walman found dirty and sneaky.

Unlike standard stick infractions, this is a classic situation where Bunting tries to goad Walman into a penalty and the officials want nothing to do with it.

Just because the official didn’t feel your hit was a penalty doesn’t mean they will protect you if Walman wants you to answer for your check. Even worse is when you turn a potential power-play opportunity for your team into a 10-minute misconduct penalty against you — which Bunting got for kicking away Moritz Seider’s stick.

“I don’t know if he had four, five punches to the face in the scrum and he ends up with a 10-minute misconduct,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said after the game. “So it’s tough for him, but he’s got to find his way through that.”

This is where Bunting has lost respect from officials and other players around the league.

Fighting has diminished, but it remains part of the NHL rule book so players can hold one another accountable, and I believe the official was looking for Bunting to help himself first. We all know that Bunting doesn’t like to fight when he physically confronts players. Regardless of whether you agree with fighting having a place in today’s game, it’s still considered honourable within the league.

Bunting’s reputation is now as a guy who would rather whine and complain than answer to a guy like Walman.

The other issue the officials have is that Bunting hasn’t learned how not to show them up when things don’t go his way. And getting shown up is a biggie with all men in stripes. You might recall when Bunting was pulled from a scrum by a linesman and aggressively pushed off the ice during a physical game against the Tampa Bay Lightning in December. I found it no coincidence No. 58 was the one pulled from the pile.

The constant head-snapping to sell calls, a slow rise off the ice after he’s fallen, the long staredowns, the chirping, slamming of bench doors, sunken body language … none of that helps Bunting or the Leafs.

The good news, however, is that Bunting has still not completed his second full season in the league. This can come down to the learning curve of being an NHLer.

Marchand’s first four years in the league looked a lot like Bunting’s first two.

Once deemed the biggest rat in the game, the Boston Bruins forward has become one of the true faces of the NHL. That’s not to say Bunting will end up on the same all-star trajectory, but it’s an example of how it takes time to learn and mature into the player you are meant to be. Credibility is earned, not given, but it does take time.

Whether there’s enough time between now and Game 1 against the Lightning for Bunting to get closer to the player he is meant to be remains to be seen.

Kyper’s Korner

Leafs goalie Matt Murray was feeling symptomatic to start this week, which may jeopardize him getting another start before the end of the regular season. That leaves the heavy workload on Ilya Samsonov’s shoulders … Samsonov is in the final year of his contract. The restricted free agent could be looking for a new deal starting in the $4-million (U.S.) range, and a first-round win would garner him starting goalie numbers, $5 million and up. The Leafs also have the option to take him to arbitration on a one-year deal that leads him to unrestricted free agency … The Colorado Avalanche should get defenceman Josh Manson back for a game or two before the end of the season, but Gabriel Landeskog still has health concerns. Despite being on the road with the team, I hear it’s touch and go on his availability to play the rest of the season.

Change my mind

On Evgeny Kuznetsov’s super-slow shootout goals: Lots of talk this week about the Washington Capitals forward’s lack of speed on shootout attempts. I can say I’m not that offended by it. While some complain about how slow he’s skating, they’re not focusing on his 83.3 per cent success rate … maybe the quickest set of hands they’ll ever see going that slow.