As a 25-year-old with just 26 regular season games of NHL experience under his belt, Michael Bunting took a chance on himself ahead of the 2021-22 season. After playing minimal parts of two seasons with the Arizona Coyotes to kick off his NHL career, Bunting signed a two-year deal as an unrestricted free agent with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The deal was prove-it deal. It cost the Maple Leafs just $1.9 million over two seasons and Bunting made it well worth their money in year one of the deal — earning a controversial Calder Trophy nomination with his 63 points in 79 regular season games for the Maple Leafs.
While the nay-sayers will spew that it was because Bunting played the majority of his season on a line with Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, one question remains heading into the 2022-23 season. Regardless of who he plays with on the Maple Leafs next season, can he repeat his offensive numbers from year one of his Maple Leafs’ contract?
Bunting’s Play Suggests Offensive Improvement
It wasn’t a move that Sheldon Keefe made right off the start of the regular season, but when the Maple Leafs’ head coach made the decision to put Bunting on the team’s top line with Matthews and Marner, the league quickly saw a boost in the line’s overall production.
Bunting, who had 14 points in 26 regular season games over two seasons with the Coyotes seemed to find his role on the Maple Leafs’ top line quite quickly. He was that pest-type of player that could drive the net, but also head into the grimy areas on the ice. God forbid, but he was a Brad Marchand type of player that the Maple Leafs were still lacking with the skill set to play alongside their top players.
But, Keefe gave Bunting the opportunity and Bunting delivered. He posted 23 goals and 63 points in 79 games in his first season with the Maple Leafs — an average of 0.79 points per game — which earned him a nomination for the Calder Trophy alongside Moritz Seider and Trevor Zegras in 2021-22.
Along with scoring, however, Bunting brought a number of intangibles to the lineup which allowed him to be as successful as he was. His willingness to go into the corners, to retrieve pucks and force opponents inside the offensive end helped produce opportunities for his lineups and, in doing so, added to his offensive production.
Bunting Found Opportunity at Even Strength
What made his explosive season so much more impressive was that 92 percent of his points came at even strength with the Maple Leafs. He finished with 21 goals and 37 assists at even strength, with his remaining five points coming on the power play.
His production at even strength had him 22nd in the league in that situation, while he finished tied for 17th in even strength assists.
While three Maple Leafs finished ahead of Bunting when it came to primary assists, Bunting had 24 primary assists in 2021-22, making up 60 percent of his helpers this past season. His vision is there and his ability to make plays was obvious — and maybe hyper focused based on who he was playing with.
But the fact that he was able to be a playmaker and help the Maple Leafs be so dynamic at even strength should be a testament to how important he was as a piece of that top line.
Even looking at the advanced statistics, Bunting had a 56.8 Corsi For Percentage (CF%) at even strength in 2021-22 in over 1,100 minutes of ice-time. More importantly, that number increased in close games at 5v5 to 57.7 CF% while having a fairly even zone start percentage.
At even strength, he had a 58.4 offensive zone start percentage and that actually dropped in close games to 57.5 percent while his Corsi For increased. Again, you have to recognize who he was playing with for the majority of the season, but the three of them had to work it out as a line and not simply individuals. Bunting played a major role in that.
Bunting Looking for a Repeat Season in 2022-23
While anything can happen, the likelihood that Bunting starts the year on the wing with Matthews and Marner is a fair assumption. Given that he had the success he did on that line this past season, Bunting has an opportunity to repeat his offensive production in 2022-23 so long as he can remain healthy for the 82-game schedule.
Remember, he didn’t start the year with the top line and Matthews missed eight games due to injury and suspension in 2021-22 which did impact the Maple Leafs lineup at points during the year. While it’d be naive to think that all three of Matthews, Marner and Bunting will make it through the year unscathed, a full season with the three could set new heights for Bunting offensively.
Also playing a role in that could be the fact that Bunting will be due a new contract after the 2022-23 season as he’ll be an unrestricted free agent and pushing for a major raise from his $950,000 contract that he is currently on.
Overall, in his career, he’s produced at a clip of 0.73 points per game through 105 career regular season games. If he can once again push that to the 0.79 points per game average that he did this season, there’s no reason why Bunting can’t set new highs in goals, assists and points for the Maple Leafs.
While it’s worth noting that he will say the team’s success is more important than his individual numbers, Bunting’s sights should be set on another offensively explosive season in Toronto. Forget hitting the rewind button on his 2021-22 campaign, because Bunting is set for another big year in blue and white.
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Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.