Sheldon Keefe and Michael Bunting downplay viral incident on Leafs bench

Everything is fine between Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe and forward Michael Bunting — at least they say so.

In Sunday’s 3-2 win over the Nashville Predators, Bunting came on the bench from one of his 14 game substitutions late in the third period — the second fewest on the team. Keefe tried to strike up a conversation with him, but the 27-year-old kept looking away from his bank boss.

Keefe was caught on camera patting Bunting on the left shoulder multiple times, hoping he would join the discussion, but that never happened.

A few days later, Bunting was asked about the incident with his head coach and threw cold water on the subject, describing it as no problem.

“I’ll keep that between Keefer and I, but what I’m going to say is that Keefe and I have a good relationship.” Bunting said after Tuesday’s practice. “We’ve known each other for a long time, so there’s not much to see. He’s one of the reasons I came to Toronto.

And Keefe echoed a similar message, passing off Bunting’s actions in response to the heat of the moment.

“It’s not an issue for me,” Keefe said. “I give players a lot of leeway and essentially pass, especially those coming straight off the ice. For me I expect a player who comes straight out of the heat of the moment to sit on the bench and be a real gentleman, right where I want to go and talk to him, I’m putting myself at risk if I’m in this situation go.

Sheldon Keefe and Michael Bunting, 58, were under scrutiny after an incident on the Leafs bench on Sunday. (John E Sokolowski – USA TODAY Sports)

Bunting has shown his emotional personality more than once during his two seasons with the Maple Leafs, so there might not be much to see here. However, his recent downgrade could indicate otherwise.

The 6-foot winger was removed from the Auston Matthews-Mitch-Marner line some time ago and found himself in the bottom six on Sunday, paired with Noel Acciari and Sam Lafferty in the third line. All told, he only saw 12:25 Ice Time against the Predators.

It also appears Calle Jarnkrok is consolidating alongside Matthews and Marner, with Keefe revealing Matthews has been committed to ensuring the versatile forward remains at the helm of the club. Currently in Toronto’s second line are captain John Tavares, William Nylander and Alex Kerfoot.

Lately, however, Keefe thinks Bunting has been performing well despite only scoring one goal and two points in his last five games.

“I think Bunts’ game has really improved here in the last week or two,” Keefe said of Bunting. “It looks to me like he’s playing with his mind clear and finding his game again. I spoke to him extensively about some offensive things that I think are really important. But for me, his game was trending in a good direction.”

Bunting excelled in his inaugural campaign with Toronto, scoring 23 goals and 63 points in 79 contests and finishing third in Calder Trophy voting. However, his sophomore season didn’t fare as well as he sits in 73 games with 21 goals and 46 points.

The Scarborough, Ontario native is in the final season of a two-year, $1.9 million deal and may become a full free agent this summer.

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