Maple Leafs Need to Get Dryden Hunt in the Top 6

Five of the top six forward positions have been a lock for the Toronto Maple Leafs for most of the 2021-22 and the 2022-23 seasons. Those five spots are taken up by Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares, and Michael Bunting. The sixth spot has been somewhat of a rotating door over the past two seasons.  

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By our calculations, we have seen at least nine players tried in the number six role over the past two years. They include Alex Kerfoot, Calle Janrkrok, Nick Robertson, Denis Malgin, Pierre Engvall, Ilya Mikheyev, Ondrej Kase, Jason Spezza, and Nick Ritchie.

Now it’s time to take a chance on newcomer Dryden Hunt. What makes him so intriguing is that he looks as if he might be a player who is close to a Bunting clone. And, if Bunting’s physical work can provide value on the team’s first line, is it possible that Hunt’s physicality can provide the same kind of value on the team’s second line?

How the Top-Six Options Have Fared for the Maple Leafs

Before Hunt came to the team, the Maple Leafs had tried a number of possibilities on the second-line, left-wing spot. Kerfoot had a good ride there last season but the second line as a whole was not great with him in that position. Mikheyev played decently there but the Maple Leafs could not afford the $4.75 million it would have taken to re-sign him. He is now gone, along with Spezza, Kase, and Ritchie.

Alex Kerfoot Toronto Maple Leafs
Alex Kerfoot, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Robertson had a good game or two, but could not sustain his level of play or his health. Denis Malgin played a top-six style of game with his speed and puck-handling abilities, but he just didn’t produce well enough (four points in 31 games) to fill the role.  

Jarnkrok Has Been the Best Second-Line Left-Winger Thus Far

At the moment Jarnkrok is doing extremely well on the left wing alongside Tavares and Marner. He has 10 points, including four goals and six assists, in his last 11 games on that line. Those 11 games were interrupted by a groin injury that saw Jarnkrok miss two weeks

Related: Maple Leafs Commentary: Where Does Calle Jarnkrok Fit?

Since Jarnkrok has returned to the lineup, he has scored three goals and added four assists (for a total of seven points) in seven games. In those seven games, Jarnkrok has scored as much or more than both Marner (two goals and five assists, for seven points) and Tavares (two goals and three assists, for five points). 

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While the Tavares line has been playing okay with Jarnkrok on it, and Jarnkrok has been producing better than the other players on that line, it still seems to be lacking the dynamics the Matthews line has. A big part of that is having a 32-year-old Tavares centering it instead of a 25-year-old Matthews. But, while not the same player he was in his prime, Tavares is still one of the top centers in the league. 

Bunting Has Helped Light the First Line on Fire

In the meantime, Bunting has caught fire playing alongside Matthews and Nylander. That line has been by far the best line for the Maple Leafs since the middle of November. In the past 23 games, Nylander has 30 points (16 goals and 14 assists); Matthews has 30 points (12 goals and 18 assists); and, Bunting has 23 points (11 goals and 12 assists).

Related: Maple Leafs Commentary: Always Seeking the Newest Michael Bunting

While Nylander is having the season of his career and leading the Maple Leafs in goals and points, Marner is no slouch himself. He recently set the Maple Leafs’ franchise record for consecutive games with a point at 23. He is considered one of the elite wingers in the NHL and has been named a first-team All-Star the past two seasons. 

Hunt Is More Like Bunting Than Jarnkrok

That brings us back to Jarnkrok. Yes, he has been playing well. Yes, he has been the best addition to that line to this point of the season. Yet something still seems to be missing. We could boil the difference down to the fact that Jarnkrok is not Bunting. He does not bring the kind of in-your-face physical presence that Bunting does.

Calle Jarnkrok Toronto Maple Leafs
Calle Jarnkrok, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

That’s where Hunt comes in. Hunt is definitely physical, boasting a total of 471 hits in 202 regular season and playoff games. If the Maple Leafs are looking for a voracious forechecker in the same ilk as Bunting, Hunt definitely fits the bill. 

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Although Hunt is not huge, he’s a solid 195 pounds. Although he’s not reported to be a great skater, to our eyes he showed some speed in the Tuesday night 6-5 loss to the St. Louis Blues when he had a breakaway early in the second period. 

It Isn’t as if Hunt Hasn’t Scored Before

Hunt has never shown a lot of offense in the NHL scoring a total of only 14 goals in 196 games. But he has scored at lower levels of the game. In his last season of junior hockey, he scored 58 goals in 72 games for the Moose Jaw Warriors. He also added 58 assists that season to give him 116 points. He then scored 72 goals for the Springfield Thunderbirds in 214 American Hockey League (AHL) games over four seasons.

As far as his NHL resume goes, Hunt did spend some time on the New York Rangers’ top line playing alongside Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider with limited success.

Dryden Hunt, New York Rangers
Dryden Hunt, when he was with the New York Rangers. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

It’s not inconceivable that, if given a chance to play alongside Tavares and Marner, Hunt could rediscover some of his scoring touch. It would not surprise us if general manager Kyle Dubas had that possibility in mind when he acquired him from the Colorado Avalanche in a deal that saw Denis Malgin go the other way.

Finding a Bunting Clone Is a Long Shot

We realize it’s a long shot that Hunt becomes a Bunting clone and finds success in the Maple Leafs’ top six. However, at the same time, who would have thought Bunting would fill the role he has filled as well as he has?

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We do think it’s just a matter of time before Hunt gets that chance. In fact, it would add a bit of bite to that line.

[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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