Day 1 of free agency for the Toronto Maple Leafs left their fans in a pool of mixed emotions. The biggest signing of the day for the team was goaltender Petr Mrazek, who was inked to a three-year contract to complete the club’s goaltending tandem with Jack Campbell. Following that was the signing of Toronto-born forward Michael Bunting to a two-year contract, and various depth signings including enforcer Kurtis Gabriel and defensive centre David Kampf.
Let’s be honest – after the way the Maple Leafs’ playoff run ended, fans really have no idea what to expect or what to want in free agency besides change. After the team that was assembled ahead of the 2020-21 season failed to get it done in the postseason, it’s pretty clear that the issues this team has are purely mental.
But, naturally, some fans were still disappointed that the Leafs didn’t break the bank for a big-name free agent this year. And while general manager Kyle Dubas has been clear that they would still like to add a winger who can potentially play in the top-six, I’d like to shed some light on the signing of Bunting, specifically.
Who is Michael Bunting?
A native of Scarborough, ON, Bunting was originally a fourth-round pick of the Arizona Coyotes in 2014. He made his OHL debut in 2013-14 and, while his junior career only spanned two years, he spent the entirety of it with, yep, you guessed it, the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds. Not only is Bunting a veteran of the Soo, but he spent both of his seasons with the Greyhounds playing under Sheldon Keefe, and one season playing under Dubas.
We all know that Dubas likes to dabble in signing veterans of his old stomping grounds (Joe Thornton, Jake Muzzin, and Campbell, to name a few), but this signing was extra special given that there was previously a connection between Bunting and Leafs’ personnel that goes back roughly eight years.
Bunting joined the Tuscon Roadrunners of the AHL in 2016-17 and paid his dues there for nearly five full seasons before finally getting a proper look in the NHL. After a sizzling start with the Roadrunners in 2020-21 where he had 19 points through his first 16 games, Bunting earned a call-up and kept the momentum going. He wound up being one of the Coyotes’ better producers down the stretch of the season, scoring 10 goals and finishing with 13 points in 21 games.
It should be mentioned that the 25-year-old was shooting at a ridiculous 26%, so it’s unlikely that this sort of production would hold up over the course of a full season. But it was an impressive start nonetheless, and was definitely enough to catch the eyes of multiple teams once he hit the open market.
What Bunting Brings to the Maple Leafs
If there’s one narrative that has been beaten into the ground ever since May 31, it’s the need for killer instinct. And as much as it’s been echoed in the past two months, it holds true today and will until the Maple Leafs finally get over that hump known as the first round. And while it’s apparent that none of these conversations would be taking place had the two guys making $11 million stepped up when the team needed them to, Bunting is a very good addition and will help address this need for killer instinct.
The easiest way to go about addressing that need is by adding players who want to be in Toronto, to play for the Maple Leafs. And if nothing else, Bunting wants to be here and took less than other teams offered him to sign with them. And who better to look to for killer instinct than a guy playing for his hometown team with an annual paycheque of less than a million dollars?
Because the Maple Leafs only had $9 million in cap space to work with this year, going out and breaking the bank on multiple free agents was obviously out of the question. But Dubas reiterated that there was still lots of skill to choose from in this year’s free agency pool, and still lots of value to be uncovered beyond the bigger-name forwards like Brandon Saad, Jaden Schwartz, and Blake Coleman.
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Bunting is a perfect example of one of those cost-effective players who could soon be worth much more than what the Leafs got him for. In his press conference with the Toronto media on Thursday, Bunting noted that the way he seized the opportunity he received in Arizona reflected what he planned to do in Toronto. He also cited that the potential for top-six minutes alongside guys like Auston Matthews or John Tavares was a big factor in his decision.
While I can’t imagine Bunting will be scoring at the pace he did during his stint with the Coyotes this season, there definitely seems like there’s some untapped potential there. And to add to this, he plays a style of game that the Leafs are deprived of as it stands, especially after losing Zach Hyman.
In an absolute best-case scenario, the Leafs could have themselves a player like Carter Verhaeghe of the Florida Panthers last season (which is ironic, considering Verhaeghe was originally a draft pick of the Maple Leafs in 2013). I’m not saying this is going to happen, seeing that Verhaeghe put up 36 points in 43 games, but after all the time Bunting spent in the AHL, it’s hard to imagine he isn’t hungry for a shot at regular NHL minutes, with his favourite team growing up, no less.
I saw a lot of fans complaining about Dubas’ moves (or lack thereof) on Wednesday, and while bringing in a bigger-name guy like Saad or Dougie Hamilton would have provided lots of excitement on the forefront, we have no idea if it would have been the move to finally solve the Maple Leafs’ playoff woes. Everybody thought Dubas had finally assembled a Cup-winning roster last season, and look how that turned out.
I’ve said it before and I will say it again. The issues this team has when push comes to shove are purely mental at this point, and adding a big name for the purpose of adding a big name won’t help them solve said issues. There’s certainly an argument to be made that the Maple Leafs’ roster is weaker than it was prior to the 2020-21 season. But with a core as skilled as the one Toronto has, a defense that remained more-or-less untouched, and an improved goaltending tandem, there’s no reason this team shouldn’t make it beyond the first round.
The run the Montreal Canadiens made to the Stanley Cup Final ultimately proves that having the best roster doesn’t mean anything come crunch time. Everybody thought the Habs would be curb-stomped by the Maple Leafs, the Winnipeg Jets, and the Vegas Golden Knights. But with hard work and resilience, they made it further than all of those teams. And by adding a player like Bunting, the Maple Leafs are taking a step in the right direction.