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In this edition of NHL Talk, Seth Jones is finding success through the beginning of his Chicago Blackhawks tenure and Michael Bunting is making a strong impression in his first season with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs.
Jones Impressing Through First 35 Games in a Blackhawks Uniform
The Blackhawks signed Jones to a whopping eight-year, $9.5 million average annual value (AAV) extension on July 23, 2021. The massive deal made headlines around the NHL as all eyes turned to Jones to see if he would be worth the money and term. In the final year before his extension kicks in, he is off to a strong start in Chicago.
“He’s been exactly what he was brought in here to be, and that’s a number one defenceman,” says THW’s Greg Boysen. “He got off to a rough start… And those first few games were under head coach Jeremy Colliton, whose defensive system had zero structure. Nobody seemed to understand exactly where to be on the ice. So, once the coaching change was made and Derek King came in and simplified things, he’s played much better.”
Through his first 35 games in Chicago, he has 25 points (three goals, 22 assists) in 35 games, good for third among Blackhawks skaters in points, only behind forwards Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat.
“He leads the team in time-on-ice and he’s averaging just under twenty-six minutes a game,” says Boysen. “He’s playing against all the opponents’ top lines and his possession numbers are pretty good… And he’s third on the team in shots overall, not among defensemen. The only people who have more shots on the Blackhawks right now are Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat.”
In his 10th NHL season, Jones is prepping for long-term success with the Blackhawks. The 27-year-old has impressed in the early days of his Chicago tenure and looks to build on his success going forward.
“He’s playing the big minutes against the tough competition. He’s providing offense on the back end. He’s exactly what you expected him to be.”
Rookie Bunting Making His Hometown Maple Leafs Proud
The Maple Leafs signed Scarborough, Ont. native Bunting to a two-year, $950K AAV contract on July 28, 2021. The 26-year-old became a mainstay NHL player last season, posting 13 points (10 goals, three assists) in 21 games with the Arizona Coyotes following a call-up from the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Tucson Roadrunners. As an unrestricted free agent, he embraced the opportunity to play for his hometown Maple Leafs and is making the most of it.
“It’s just impressive how well he’s handled the pressure,” says THW’s Peter Baracchini. “Top line duties, working his way up through the lineup and being a very strong complementary player to Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. And even when Mitch Marner was out with his shoulder injury or upper body injury, Michael Bunting started to feel more comfortable in that top line role, playing alongside Matthews. And they’re developing some really great chemistry.”
Bunting has 23 points (eight goals, 15 assists) in 36 games with the Maple Leafs so far, and is tied with Anaheim Ducks forward Anton Lundell for fifth-most points among rookie skaters.
“[The Maple Leafs are] getting more value from him than they expected,” says Baracchini. “With Zach Hyman leaving in free agency, they needed to address their depth, but Zach Hyman was a massive hole to fill.”
The Maple Leafs are finding success without Hyman, and Bunting is a major reason why. Toronto sits third in the Atlantic Division with a 24-9-3 record, only behind the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers. The team also has the fifth-best points percentage in the NHL at .708%.
“I hate to draw comparisons, but [Bunting] does everything so well, just like Zach Hyman,” says Baracchini. “And, you know, everyone is going to say, ‘Oh, you got to stop comparing Bunting to Hyman,’ but you can’t help but see the parallels and how well they play that forechecking and attacking style to set everything up.”
Thank you for reading this edition of NHL Talk, and make sure to listen to THW Podcast every weekday (Monday to Friday) to hear everything your favourite hockey writers have to say about the hottest topics around the league.
Tom Pepper is a columnist at The Hockey Writers since June 2020. He is a diehard fan of the St. Louis Blues.