Maple Leafs’ Bunting Likely Won’t Live Up to Fans’ Lofty Expectations

On July 28th, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced the signing of 25-year-old former Arizona Coyote forward Michael Bunting to a one-way, two-year, $1.9 million contract. In other words, the contract pays Bunting $950,000 a season. 

What Should Maple Leafs’ Fans Expect from Bunting?

The burning question is, “What do the Maple Leafs have in this young player?” For someone who isn’t making one million per season, there seemed to be a lot of hype about his signing. Is that hype warranted?

Some Maple Leafs’ fans were more than intrigued by the fact that Bunting put home so many goals in such a short time last season. Others were taken by his playing style, which many suggested shared many attributes with the departed Zach Hyman – even without the size. 

Considering Bunting’s Scoring

Last season, Bunting played 16 games for the Tucson Roadrunners of the AHL, where he scored seven goals and 12 assists (for 19 points). He also then went on to play 21 games for the Arizona Coyotes, where he scored 10 goals and three assists for 13 points. 

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That’s the part of Bunting’s season that caught many fans’ eyes. If you project Bunting’s scoring pace with the Coyotes last season over a full 82-game season, it would be an amazing 39 goals and 12 assists (for 51 points) per season.  

Could that be correct? Did Dubas sign a potential 40-goal scorer in the prime of his career for less than a million dollars? If so, it would have to be the steal of the century. 

Looking More Closely at Bunting’s Career

Bunting was drafted by Arizona in the fourth round (117th overall) of the 2014 Entry Draft. The Coyotes signed him to an entry-level contract in 2015. Going into the 2020-21 season, Bunting had played a total of five games in the NHL. During those games, he scored one goal and had zero assists. 

Bunting had also played 307 games over five seasons for the AHL’s Springfield Falcons and the Roadrunners. Basically, until last season he’d been a career AHL player.  

In his five seasons in the AHL, he scored 78 goals and added 108 assists (for 186 points). That would work out to 21 goals and 29 assists (for 50 points) projected over an 82-game season in the AHL. Using the Dobber Sports calculator that calculates how scoring from other leagues equates to scoring potential in the NHL, Bunting’s AHL numbers works out to 10 goals and 14 assists (for 24 points) over an 82-game NHL season.  

Was Bunting’s Goal-Scoring an Aberration?

Doing the math, Bunting scored 10 goals on 38 shots for Arizona last season. That’s a shooting percentage of 26.3 percent, which is way above the NHL average. In fact, during the last full 82-game NHL season in 2018-19, the shooting average was just under ten percent (specifically, it was 9.46 percent).

If Bunting’s shooting percentage were calculated using the average NHL shooting percentage for the 2018-19, he would have scored under four goals (a 3.6 average, in fact) by taking those 38 shots. Working forward from the 3.6 goals Bunting scored in the 21 games he played, that would translate to 14 goals over 82 games.  

How Did the Coyotes Use Bunting During the Games He Played?

Another interesting thing about Bunting’s time last season with the Coyotes was his usage. Our homework tells us that Bunting started 72.4 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, and only 27.2 percent in the defensive zone. He averaged just under two minutes a game on the power play. And, he had a good Corsi For percentage of 56.07 percent when he played 5-on-5 hockey. 

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However, Bunting’s numbers degenerated when it came to high-quality scoring chances. His Shots For percentage was 52 percent, His Scoring Chances For percentage was 50 percent, and his High Danger Scoring Chances For percentage was only 45.19 percent. All these numbers were generated while playing more sheltered ice time in the offensive zone. 

The Coyotes Are Not the Maple Leafs

Obviously, as we noted in our post about David Kampf yesterday, one situation is not like the other. In Bunting’s case, playing with the Coyotes isn’t like playing with the Maple Leafs. The Coyotes record of 24-26-6 does not compare to the Maple Leafs 35-14-7 record over the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season. Still, Bunting started over 70 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone and gave up 55 percent of the really good scoring chances. That’s not a good sign.  

Even for a numbers person, numbers can’t tell the whole story. The fact is, Bunting could be a player who found his game late. That said, if the numbers are an indication, Bunting will likely not be the top-six winger many Maple Leafs’ fans hoped he’ll be. 

In fact, there’s a chance Bunting could find himself without a roster spot at all. If that is the case, his complete $950,000 contract could be buried in the minors.

Why Did Dubas Sign Bunting?

So why did Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas, an admitted numbers guy himself, go after and sign Bunting? One part of the explanation is the obvious fact that the organization believes Bunting will add value to the roster and will blossom into a productive addition to the team – hopefully in ways that help replace what Hyman takes with him to the Edmonton Oilers. 

A second part of the explanation is that Bunting is known. During the 2013-14 and the 2014-15 seasons, Bunting played for Dubas’ Soo Greyhounds where he scored 52 goals and 64 assists (for 116 points) in 105 regular-season games. He also scored 14 goals and six assists (for 20 points) in 23 playoff games. As he’s shown to date, Dubas likes to bring home former players from his junior team.

Michael Bunting
Michael Bunting when he played with the Soo [photo: Terry Wilson/OHL Images]

Maple Leafs’ fans will be anxious to see how Bunting’s signing works out. Despite being “only” 5-foot-11, he’s a solid 195-pounder who doesn’t shy away from the dirty areas of the ice. At the same time, Bunting also has never played with line-mates like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner or John Tavares and Nylander. 

What Will Bunting Become with the Maple Leafs? Truthfully, We Don’t Know

The fact is that Bunting could be a late-bloomer who will thrive playing with top talent. On the other hand, he could find himself in a dogfight for a fourth-line role on the Maple Leafs. 

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As we often say, stay tuned. That’s the fun of watching this entire process unfold.

[Note: Again 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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