When the Toronto Maple Leafs signed Michael Bunting to a two-year contract, there was a massive hole to fill with the absence of Zach Hyman. 36 games into his tenure with the team, it’s safe to say that things have gone extremely well.
Bunting has already exceeded expectations with his on-ice play and has matched the energy and intensity that was lost with Hyman. He has gone above and beyond, instantly becoming a fixture in the team’s top-six. There isn’t any doubt that both Bunting and the Maple Leafs were a perfect match for a team that was desperately trying to fill out it’s depth.
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There was an abundance of untapped potential for Bunting at the beginning of the season. Now, the Maple Leafs are getting what they had hoped for and more when they signed him.
Zach Hyman 2.0
Going into the season, there was definitely the possibility that Bunting wouldn’t live up to the expectations to replace the impact that Hyman had. Bunting only had 26 previous games of NHL experience, including an impressive 10 goals in 23 games with the Arizona Coyotes last season, a shooting percent of 26.3.
That kind of production is notable, but the question remained; would that kind of point production and offensive impact continue? For one, joining a talented team like the Maple Leafs, that possibility remained. But there’s also the pressure of playing for the hometown team. It’s pretty evident that Bunting is living the dream and is giving the Maple Leafs extremely great value, more than what his $950,000 cap hit shows.
Bunting has already surpassed his point totals from last season, as he has 23 points. He’s closing in on his goal total from last season and is doing an effective job at setting up and being a complimentary piece to top tier players in Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. He has a respectful 0.64 points per game, which is also good for a 53-point pace for the season.
As a comparison, Hyman has 21 points in 32 games– playing with Connor McDavid at times during the season– and has a 0.66 points per game, 49-point pace. Even though he missed three games due to a shoulder injury, he’s still the same player we saw in Toronto.
For Bunting to have the kind of success that he’s having is a great sign of his potential and consistency. He’s doing exactly what Hyman did. Both like to get in on the forecheck as they’re constantly chasing down pucks and engaging in battles to regain possession. At five-on-five, Bunting has an advantage in this aspect as he has 18 takeaways, while Hyman has 10.
While Both Bunting and Hyman have been on a same pace for the season, Bunting does have an advantage in terms of his possession metrics and shot attempts. Here is a breakdown of some key metrics.
|Category (5v5)||Zach Hyman||Michael Bunting|
It’s clear that Bunting is having a slightly more important impact whenever he’s on the ice. When he’s on the ice, the team dominates in creating shot attempts and scoring chances. In terms of individual production, Bunting has a better individual CF (115 to Hyman’s 101) and has generated more individual scoring chances (87) than Hyman (74). According to Money Puck, 13.1% of his shift starts are in offensive zone at 5v5, compared to Hyman who has 15.9% of his starts. That’s a great impact considering he sees less starts than Hyman and is doing his job and more at a cheaper price tag.
Rookie of the Year?
This kind of production has Bunting in the conversation for the Rookie of the Year award. Wait, isn’t he too old to be in contention? According to the rules, he still qualifies as he never played 25 games in a season and his birthday was two days after the Sept 15 cut-off.
There’s still a debate about the age limit for the award. For example, Artemi Panarin won the award at 24 in 2015-16 and Evgeni Nabokov won it at 25 in 2000-01. Until the NHL changes the rule and lowers the age limit, it’ll remain this way until they do.
Bunting has put himself into the conversation as one of the top rookies this season. He’s sixth overall in points, fourth overall in assists and even strength points with 20. Now, will he win the award over Lucas Raymond, Moritz Seider or Trevor Zegras? Personally, I don’t think so.
While Bunting is having a great season, all three players mentioned are going above and beyond and are future stars that are starting to emerge from a rebuild. That demonstrates their ability as top prospects to lift their team to be more competitive than a player that’s thriving on a playoff contender. Even if Bunting was leading all rookies in points, that shouldn’t be the main reason why he wins. Raymond, Seider and Zegras are reasons why their teams have a chance to win every night.
Regardless if he should win the award, he’s definitely keeping up with some game-changing prospects.
Impact On Top Line
While many thought of Bunting being an impactful third-line player, seeing him eventually make his way into the top-six was never out of the question. It always seemed like that was going to be Bunting’s spot and he’s held onto it very well.
It seems that Bunting was destined to thrive with Matthews and Marner on the wing, just like Hyman did previously. It’s evident by the chemistry that’s already being formed between Matthews and Bunting. He knows his job on that line and he continues to impress with each game.
While the play style and similarities are evident, Bunting has said that he tries to stick to his own game plan to be a factor along the boards and in front of the net. He’s quick in getting in and setting up an attack, but his speed is also an asset in transition as he has three chances off the rush. His eight rebounds created is fourth overall on the team being a factor down low or from far out with his shot.
Then there’s his feisty side, not being afraid to mix it up and get in the faces of the opposition. Bunting admired the Sundin-era, where the Maple Leafs had a number of players with an edge. That added grit and in your face mentality was what was missing and they addressed it with the presence of Bunting. In addition, his ability to draw penalties has been noticeable, being tied for third in that category with 20 in the league. He’s becoming the player that you just hate to play against.
The Maple Leafs needed to address their depth in the offseason and nearing the halfway point of the season, it looks like an A+ move bringing in Bunting. He’s surpassed expectations of what they needed, being an impactful top-six winger while being a complimentary player to two elite level talents.
There isn’t any doubt that the Bunting is going to be a key part in the Maple Leafs success.
Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.