F#ck it, I guess we’re talking about free agents now. We could be talking about the Leafs match up against the Lightning, but nah, talking about free agents that can fit into the narrow bit of workable cap space for the Leafs is cool too. Though today we’ll hopefully get to have our post up for more than 20 minutes before the player we’re talking about announces they have no intention of playing for any team other than the one they are currently with.
So in the spirit of finding someone who is both affordable and would want to play in Toronto, we’ll dial things back from aging superstars, and refocus on a player that might have had his NHL breakout season last year. That player is Michael Bunting.
Michael Bunting checks a lot of boxes for things that the Leafs could use:
- First of all, he’s 25, so he’s about as young as you can find when you’re talking unrestricted free agents. He hasn’t played in the NHL enough for the Coyotes to retain him as an unrestricted free agent, so their loss could very easily be the Leafs gain. Younger is generally a positive thing.
- That birth certificate, baby. While the track record of Toronto area players playing for the Leafs isn’t a guarantee of peak performance, the fact that Michael Bunting is a Scarborough native likely means that he’ll be picking up the phone if Kyle Dubas calls.
- Also, there’s a good chance Kyle already has that number, as Bunting played for him on the Greyhounds, you know, that team that Sheldon Keefe coached. There’s a lot of familiarity there which is either a very good or a very bad thing as far as this idea goes. If Bunting isn’t a Leaf, I guess we acknowledge that being familiar isn’t also a good thing, but for now we’ll assume that Bunting’s 37 goals and 74 points in a 54 game season for Soo means Dubas and Keefe are fans.
- His last 21 games point to him breaking out. Bunting averaged just under 17 minutes a night last season. He had 10 goals in 21 games, and over a hit per game with 28 last season. If we’re looking for who the next potential Carter Verhaeghe breakout player might be, Michael Bunting could very well be it.
- He’s going to cost pennies on the dollar. Right now Evolving Hockey is estimating Bunting getting a one year deal at $1.069 (nice) for that season. That’s a hell of a deal, although I wouldn’t rule out that he could get more. Even so, Bunting has the potential to be a bargain with upside rather than a bargain that provides leadership and is gasping for air by the second game of the playoffs.
- Finally, there’s encouraging scouting reports, like this one from Dobbers Prospects a few years back: “A hard working winger who models his game after Brad Marchand. He’s had the pest part down now the offense is starting to show. Could be a solid bottom-six winger in the NHL.” It’s safe to say the time for Bunting to turn into Brad Marchand has likely passed, but a productive bottom six player with a bit of edge and defensive responsibility to his game mixed with offensive abilities is a plus.
So yeah, I like this kid. And in a summer when Zach Hyman could walk for $6M, Bunting seems like one hell of a replacement at possibly a quarter of the price. Plus he’s got age and health on his side. You even get the Toronto kid factor if that’s your bag.
|Season||GP||TOI||TOI/GP||CF/60||CA/60||CF%||xGF/60||xGA/60||xG%||GF%||HDCF%||Off. Zone Faceoff %|
The 5v5 numbers for Bunting certainly speak to some sheltering, as for a supposed two way player, there was a lot of offensive zone starts for him. And the generally favourable percentages for Corsi, Expected Goals, and Goals are somewhat given an asterisk by the fact that there were more high danger opportunities against him when he was on the ice that his line generated, and that was with those favourable zone starts (He also benefited from playing with Conor Garland and Nick Schmaltz). You could also argue though that Bunting was playing on the Coyotes, a team equally cursed by injury and lack of depth, and that he was a solid compliment to talented forward and a center that needed to get going again. Basically there’s enough there to make him worth the same consideration given to Travis Boyd or Jimmy Vesey as a sink or swim bottom six option.
While other teams are trying to sign Zach Hyman away from the Leafs, Toronto is better off trying to find the next Zach Hyman, who can potentially play up in the lineup while making less than $2.5M/yr. For all the Mark Donk jokes about Crosby and Malkin’s wingers in Pittsburgh, there’s something to it and Bunting scores well on the Donk factor.
Even when looking at the restricted free agent class for this summer and trying to guess at who has the potential to not receive a qualifying offer from their current team, there are few players that combine the upside of Bunting with the projected cost of signing him. That’s why Bunting is a bargain player the Leafs would be wise to target in July.