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‘Underdog’ Michael Bunting Drives Everyone Crazy; Role in Flux



Pittsburgh Penguins, Michael Bunting acquired via Penguins trade

To parse, separate, and read between the lines of Pittsburgh Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas’s recent radio show might spawn a few more NHL trade rumors connecting the Penguins and top-six forwards, but also a few of coach Mike Sullivan’s gray hairs. The root of the new grays will be newly acquired winger Michael Bunting.

After four games, the good and bad of Bunting is quickly apparent. There isn’t nuance or subtlety to Bunting’s game, but instead, he’s a noticeable scrapper who digs for pucks on the walls, plays around the net, and doesn’t lack effort.

Bunting, 28, can also get lost or overzealous in the defensive zone, leaving opponents open. He was a minus-15 with the Carolina Hurricanes and has had a few wayward moments with the Penguins, too.

“His ability to forecheck, hunt the puck down, but then also make plays in those tight areas and then get to the net, as we saw (Tuesday) in the six-on-five situation to tie the game in Ottawa. That’s what he brings,” said Dubas. “He can make plays at the net. (Bunting) can keep plays alive for others.

“He can drive the opponent crazy sometimes. He can drive his manager and coach crazy as well. But he brings great energy day in and day out.”

Dubas has known Bunting since the pair were with the Soo Greyhounds of the OHL, Dubas as the wunderkind young general manager and Bunting as a late bloomer. As a side note, former Penguins Matt Murray and Jared McCann were also part of that team.

After a pair of 23-goal seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Bunting signed a three-year, $13.5 million deal with the Carolina Hurricanes. His $4.5 million salary cap hit was necessary for Carolina to trade to be able to acquire Jake Guentzel, but also, the Penguins needed some of those very things Bunting brings.

The team has too often defaulted to the Icecapades-worthy pretty passing around the perimeter, not getting to the net, and not bringing enough energy for the fight.

Bunting won’t have either of those problems.

After a few games on the Penguins’ top line with Sidney Crosby, Sullivan juggled his lines for the third period against the San Jose Sharks. Bunting slipped down a line to play with Evgeni Malkin, while Drew O’Connor flipped forward to play with Crosby.

The homogeny of Bryan Rust and Bunting on Crosby’s line was probably a little thick, and the line began to click with O’Connor in a way that it did not with Bunting.

And Bunting is probably a good winger for Malkin because Sullivan has searched for wingers this season to, as he’s stated several times, “drag Geno into the fight down low.”

For a moment, those wingers were Valtteri Puustinen and Drew O’Connor, but that spark faded. Bunting seems tailor-made for the job.

“He’s a real competitor. And he’s had probably a tougher road than anybody in our locker room to get to this point,” said Dubas. “He didn’t play Triple-A hockey until he was 17 years old. So he’s had to grind his way all the way up. He’s an underdog type. And I think the group can use that type of spirit energy right now.”

The Penguins are five points out of a playoff spot, which might sound like a lot — and it is — but it’s also as close as they’ve been in a couple of months. The Penguins have just three wins in their last 10 games and are tied for 11th best winning percentage (.515) in the Eastern Conference, yet they’ve got a chance to make the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Bunting is certainly no replacement for Guentzel, but does bring a few different elements to the team. In a season of seemingly endless oddities, gaffes, and the unexpected, perhaps a little more energy and grit in the lineup from a scrapper is something to build on. He’s already helped to a point they didn’t earn.

Where he eventually slots in the Penguins lineup is an unknown, just as where the Penguins will finish this season. But the early returns suggest a scrappy middle-six winger who brings a missing element.