Bunting’s struggles likely to keep him out of the Leafs top six
Photo credit:Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
By Jon Steitzer2 months ago
Michael Bunting has been great as of late. Sheldon Keefe has certainly noticed that even before the overblown scene on the bench where Bunting didn’t look open to feedback. It’s safe to say when Bunting started taking his voyage down the roster it was clear things weren’t going well.
After 7 points (4 goals) in 9 games in February, Bunting has four points in 13 games in March. His ice time has been on a steady decline since January, and Bunting away from Matthews hasn’t really found another way to produce 5v5 consistently.
The thing with Bunting is that his bread and butter has been fitting in on Auston Matthews’ wing and now that Calle Jarnkrok might be emerging as the superior option there are additional challenges to Bunting winning that spot back. Bunting has played just 240 minutes away from Auston when Matthews is in the lineup. Where Bunting has played 655 minutes with Matthews, the next highest Leafs regular center that Bunting has ice time with is Tavares at 188 minutes. Those minutes haven’t gone ideal at 5v5 either. And for the most part, Bunting has gotten by very well on being a complimentary piece to Matthews and keeping him playing with Marner or Nylander as well for most of the time as a Leaf this season. When it comes to the third most frequent wing partner, Bunting has played 53 minutes with Calle Jarnkrok. In those 53 minutes, they’ve been in on exactly one goal together with Jarnkrok picking up an assist on a Bunting goal back in February.
|Bunting With||TOI With||CF% With||Bunting CF% Without||CF% Without Bunting||GF/60||GF% With||xGF% With|
Matthews WOWYs with and without Bunting are interesting. He has a 53.27% CF% with him and 53.73% without Bunting. So Bunting really isn’t bringing anything to Matthews game if we were to take shot differentials as the be all to end all of statistics. In contrast, Bunting has a 45.82% CF% away from Matthews. There is some reliance on Matthews to help get the most of Bunting offensively, but putting them back together still might not be in the best interest of the Leafs or Matthews, who has been playing some of his best hockey of the season now that he has Jarnkrok on his line.
When it comes to Bunting’s offensive production the numbers are interesting:
|Assists on Bunting’s Goals|
|Goals Bunting has assisted on|
|In on a goal with Bunting|
There is already a steep drop-off after Marner there but was is especially interesting about those Tavares points is that five of them came on the powerplay, resulting in Tavares and Bunting being a very unsuccessful duo at 5v5.
So what are the takeaways from this information?
The first is that if Jarnkrok is going to be a staple of the Leafs top line to start the playoffs, there needs to be another fit for Bunting and it doesn’t seem like Tavares is it nor will the Leafs get much out of Bunting without a top six caliber player. The easy solution here seems to be to try him with Ryan O’Reilly when ROR returns. The two have had some limited success in the smallest of samples and would allow the Leafs to keep their current top six intact, assuming they once again figure out what the answer is on Tavares’ left wing.
There is of course the fact that Bunting can very much slide into an energy role and combining him with players like Zach Aston-Reese, Sam Lafferty, or Noel Acciari gives the Leafs a bit of a grind line but that is completely ignoring Bunting’s ability to score greasy goals when given high talent players to work with.
Honestly, I think the O’Reilly approach might be the best as it presents the best opportunity to roll three strong lines, and bench shorting and readjustments are always permitted as needed. You also don’t snap a player out of a cold streak by only giving them linemates that force that cold streak to continue.
The other aspect looks beyond the immediate need for Bunting to step up and that is looking ahead to his next contract. The numbers on Bunting very much support that he is a complimentary winger and needs to play alongside specific players to achieve his best results. I’m not sure the Leafs should be paying a premium for that when contract estimates have Bunting potentially making double what Jarnkrok is making or likely quadruple what the Leafs will be paying Matthew Knies to try to develop into as well. The idea of Michael Bunting being a Leaf has a ton of appeal because he has been a solid fit, but if he wants to be a Leaf for the rest of his career it should come at a discount given his role.
That is still a way down the road and as an agitating player who will get every opportunity to use that skill set against the Lightning his path back into the good graces of the Leafs is easy to see. It’s also really only been one rocky month out of two solid seasons.
Data sourced from Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference
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