Maple Leafs’ Bunting Should Be a Calder Trophy Candidate

Michael Bunting scored his 20th goal of the season in the Maple Leafs 5-4 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday night. He now leads all rookies in goals scored, two ahead of second-place Tanner Jeannot of the Nashville Predators. His assist in last night’s win against the Seattle Kraken also give Bunting sole possession of the overall rookies scoring race with 46 points, three more than the Detroit Red Wings’ Lucas Raymond.  

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By the NHL rules, Bunting is an NHL rookie. He qualifies, as the old saying goes, “By the skin of his teeth.” But the feeling is that Bunting won’t be considered.

What Qualifies a Player as a Rookie?

To be considered an NHL rookie, a player cannot be 26 years of age on, or before, September 15th of that season. Bunting turned 26 two days later, on the 17th. In addition, a player cannot have played more than 25 games in any season preceding the present season. Bunting played in 21 games in 2020-21. In contrast, Jeannot played 15 games with the Predators. Raymond was drafted last summer.

Michael Bunting
Michael Bunting with the Soo Greyhounds [photo: Terry Wilson/OHL Images]

A player cannot have played in six or more games in any two seasons preceding the present season. Bunting’s played in five games in the 2019-20 season. If he had played in one more game in 2019-20 Bunting would not be considered a rookie.

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By a margin of two days and one NHL game, Bunting is officially a rookie in the NHL. Because of his age and the fact that he just squeaks in under the rule, some think he should not be considered for the Calder Trophy. We disagree.

Punishing Bunting for the AHL Shouldn’t Be an Issue

We think that, because of the uniqueness of the situation and the fact that it’s so rare that a player in Bunting’s situation has the opportunity to win the Calder, he should be fully considered equally among the other rookies for the Calder. After that, the winner should be determined by merit, and merit alone. 

At Bunting’s current scoring pace (he’s at the 57 game mark of the 2021-22 season and might score 30 goals), he’s heading towards a season’s total of about 30 goals and 70 points. At present, he’s tied for 16th in all-time goals by a Maple Leafs’ rookie, one goal shy of Gus Bodnar (during the 1943-44 season) and Vincent Damphousse (during the 1986-87 season). 

Vincent Damphousse, San Jose Sharks, NHL, Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL Draft
Was Vincent Damphousse the biggest steal in the 1986 NHL Entry Draft? (Dave Nelson/Flickr)

Bunting is also two goals shy of William Nylander, who scored 22 goals in his rookie season in 2016-17. If he continues at his present pace and finishes with his projected 29 goals or above, he’d end up tied for fourth overall with Reg Noble, who scored 29 goals way back in 1917-18.

If Bunting continues his present pace and finishes the season with 69 points, he’ll end up tied for first place on the all-time Maple Leafs’ rookie scoring with none other than the highest-scoring Maple Leafs’ rookie of all time. That just happens to be Bunting’s current line-mate, Auston Matthews, who scored 69 points in 2016-17.  

Wouldn’t it be something if Matthews helped Bunting beat his own rookie scoring record? We’re sure he’d like it.

Should Bunting Be Considered for the Calder?

That brings us back to the question of whether Bunting should be, or will be, considered as a candidate for the Calder Trophy. Not only does he have his age working against him as far as some are concerned, but he’s also playing alongside one of arguably the best goal scorers in the game, in Matthews, and one of the best playmakers in the game, in Mitch Marner. 

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We’re sure some fans will think he’s riding their coattails; and, if not for being on that top line, he would not be at the top of rookie goals and points. To be honest they would have a point. But he also brings something different and more greasy to that line. He improves his line partners’ play.

When looking through Buntings numbers there’s another statistic that stands out. Last night Bunting played the 83rd game of his NHL career and scored two points. In the 82 games prior, which is exactly the length of a regular NHL season, he scored 31 goals and 28 assists (for 59 points). That’s a strong season. 

Michael Bunting Toronto Maple Leafs
Michael Bunting, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

We wonder if someone were to have told Bunting, when he stepped on the ice for his first NHL game on December 11th, 2018, if he thought he’d be able to score 31 goals in his first 82 games. What might he have said?  

Maple Leafs’ General Manager Kyle Dubas Made a Great Move

Kyle Dubas has been praised for some of his moves and raked over the coals for others. Signing Bunting for two years at $950,000 a season has to be one of the best moves he’s ever made.

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For the last time, we come back to the question, should Michael Bunting be considered for Rookie of the Year and the Calder Trophy? Our vote is a resounding YES. 

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]

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