It has been a few weeks since the Toronto Maple Leafs were eliminated from the 2023 NHL Playoffs, and Leafs Nation has had time to grieve the loss. But now it is time to turn our attention to the offseason, which could be one of the most exciting ones in recent memory. The organization is currently interviewing candidates for their general manager (GM) vacancy, while also trying to assess what the “core four” of the team would like to do in the next two seasons.
On top of all that, we will also get more clarity on what is going to happen with some of their unrestricted free agents, such as Michael Bunting. Being a Toronto-area native, his heart is most likely set on staying with the Maple Leafs, but two questions come with that. One, does the team want him back? As well as, can he get more money on the open market? So, let’s examine some potential landing spots for Bunting ahead of the 2023 NHL free-agency window.
Remember why Bunting came to the Maple Leafs? Well, besides his love for his hometown team, he also had a very strong relationship with the former GM Kyle Dubas. If the reports are true, Dubas may be the next GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins. A Penguins team that needs to try everything that they can to try and stay competitive, so if Dubas can work his magic and get Bunting to jump to Pittsburgh, it could help improve their top-six.
The previous regime of Ron Hextall and Brian Burke appeared to struggle to insulate their stars, which has been something that Dubas has done well during his time with the Maple Leafs. The only struggle is when he took over the club as the GM, they had assets that they could part with to improve their team, Pittsburgh doesn’t have a ton of assets for him to work with. Nevertheless, his ability to work the salary cap and pull off deals will be put to use if and when he does take over the role of the team’s new GM.
Regardless of whether Dubas does take over the team, the fit between Bunting and the Penguins is there. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel need all the help they can get up front. If Bunting can provide what he was able to do with the Leafs then he could be a fixture on the top line alongside Crosby. The Penguins should also try and reunite Malkin with former teammate Phil Kessel to keep his production levels higher. However, if that doesn’t work out then sliding Bunting down to the second line with Malkin could also offer him some support. Whether that support for either star is digging for pucks, getting in the opponent’s face after whistles or helping on the score sheet, it’ll be an improvement over what happened last season.
The last reason why this would be a good fit is Bunting’s antics on the ice. He dug himself quite a hole with the NHL referees and the lack of penalties called against him. This is where Crosby comes in, his presence and voice should be all Bunting needs to refrain from putting himself in those situations or even embellishing calls that eventually go against the team. The potential fit between the player and the organization could be a win-win for both.
It seems that the Boston Bruins’ fanbase and organization like players who tend to get under your skin. One of the best Bruins in recent history is Brad Marchand, who plays a vastly similar style to that of Bunting but is much more of an elite talent. This is the exact reason why Bunting would be such a good fit with the organization. Bunting loves to mix it up and get under his opponent’s skin, which he can do with Boston and learn how to do it from one of the best ever in Marchand. He can also play a lesser role than he did in Toronto, which also may help his production with less pressure playing in the Bruins’ middle six rather than the Maple Leafs’ top six.
Another reason why it could make sense is that the Bruins are set to lose Tyler Bertuzzi by free agency, who also plays a similar role to both Marchand and Bunting. Bunting could come with a much smaller average annual value (AAV) than Bertuzzi may command on the open market, which will allow the Bruins to address other areas of need, especially if Patrice Bergeron does retire. Much like the Crosby effect that was mentioned previously, Boston has their own set of players who demand respect like the aforementioned Marchand, David Pastrnak, David Krejci and even Charlie McAvoy. All of which can hold a player accountable, and that is not to say that the Maple Leafs don’t have that. But, being a new guy on a team and having members of the leadership group tell you off the start to keep your actions under control, but at the same time play your game, can have a tremendous impact on a player’s mindset.
St. Louis Blues
The St. Louis Blues are in an interesting situation; they have three first-round draft picks in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft but also have a fairly good core with Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou that they can build off of to stay competitive. Yes, they had a bad year and moved some rental players out to re-coup assets, but they also made moves to bring in secondary pieces like Jakub Vrana and Kasperi Kapanen to help the core players. If you add Bunting to the Blues roster, the team becomes a lot like the Seattle Kraken. You have three lines of players who will compete hard every shift but don’t make more than $10 million per season. The management group in St. Louis will still need to move out a contract or two, most likely on the back end or between the pipes to change the culture from the past team that won the Cup to the new version of the team. But, it wouldn’t be shocking if they were aggressive in free agency.
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A forward target that the club should look at is Bunting due to his lower number, which will fall somewhere around $4-5 million per season. They should also look at his last two seasons in terms of production. He has scored 112 points in his time with the Maple Leafs, which includes 46 goals and 66 assists. If Bunting plays in the middle or top six with the Blues, his production will likely stay around that 50-55 point mark. This is a good number for a player at his price point, especially for a team that is looking for a bounce-back season.
St. Louis is a good hockey market, but it isn’t as loud as Toronto is, and this is not to say that Bunting couldn’t handle the media, because he appeared to have done a great job at it. But it is to say that maybe playing in a market that doesn’t get so much attention but is still a competitive team will do him good. He will slowly become less talked about, which can allow him to get back to the basics of his game and rebuild his newly formed reputation, back to his pre-Toronto days.
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While there is still hope that the Maple Leafs can bring back Bunting, it seems that with a new GM leading the charge, there will be changes. There have been rumours that it may be with the core, but if they decide to stay with that core, all signs would point to the changes being to the supporting cast. This could mean that Bunting has played his last game with the team. With that said, after the season that Bunting had, it appears that his relationship with Sheldon Keefe took a turn for the worse. This could lead to a potential situation where, if there isn’t a new coach by the time free agency opens on July 1, 2023, Bunting may not be interested in coming back.