Maple Leafs can move on from Michael Bunting this summer, if they want

Photo credit:Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Ryan Hobart
1 year ago
There are a lot of moving parts in Toronto’s plans for next season, and one of them is the expiring contract of Michael Bunting. At the end of this season, Bunting will be an unrestricted free agent.
At the same time, the Leafs will be freeing up a total of about $11M in money just from expired contracts of forwards: Bunting, Pierre Engvall, Zach Aston-Reese, Wayne Simmonds, David Kampf, and Alex Kerfoot. We can safely assume the Leafs want to re-sign David Kampf, who makes $1.5M now and will be due for a small raise (~$2M). Aston-Reese and Simmonds will be re-signed or replaced at around league minimum. Assuming Kerfoot and Engvall is also replaced with entry level deals or league-minimum veterans, that’s another $3.5M total for those 4. $5.5M for 5 players, of an available $11M leaves about $5.5M for Bunting.
It’s true that the Leafs could find money elsewhere. Ignoring Muzzin’s salary, which will be put on LTIR or otherwise dealt with, they could move to cheaper options on defense by letting Justin Holl leave as a UFA or trading TJ Brodie. However, the depths to which the team relies on both of those players makes both of those unlikely. For netminding, it seems unlikely at this point that they’d want to change their goaltending duo, so a ~$1M raise to Ilya Samsonov, who is a restricted free agent at the end of the season, should also be accounted for. A move on Matt Murry will be challenging, given his NTC, and large cap hit.
So, we’re looking at about $4.5M of cap space, maybe more, maybe less. That would be just enough to sign Bunting, given the awesome 2 years he’s had in Toronto. From Jon Steitzer’s article on this topic a month ago:
Evolving Hockey’s salary projection (based on the end of the 2021-22 season) sees Bunting most likely to get a three-year deal at just under $4M AAV based on their model. This, like the [Nick Paul] deal [7 years at $3.15M], seems like something in the ballpark of what the Leafs could be comfortable with. That said, that was based on a potential one-off breakout year playing with Auston Matthews, now that Bunting has shown he has staying power on that line and his numbers are becoming consistent with what he did in his “rookie” year, the consistency and rising salary cap should drive the price up for a pesty player that can produce.
Or, the money could be spent elsewhere, shoring up depth by bringing in 2 or 3 forwards at around $2M. This team is built top heavy, with large contracts to Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, and John Tavares, and a looming extension for William Nylander in there as well. They simply can’t afford to pay fair wages for middle six forwards under the barely growing salary cap.
My argument is that the Leafs have an established ability to find new Michael Buntings, so we shouldn’t spend a large chunk of money on this Michael Bunting.
Before Michael Bunting, the team has encountered numerous similar dilemmas in the past. Most recently, we have Ilya Mikheyev. After a few seasons on a fairly team-friendly deal, Mikheyev moved to the Vancouver Canucks for a $4.75M cap hit for four years. The year prior, Zach Hyman came off of his own rather team friendly contract, and signed a contract bearing a $5.5M cap hit for 7 years. The year before that, both Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnson were traded because their contracts, while being entirely fair value at the time were not affordable for Toronto. And going further back, Connor Brown had to be traded away in order to fit in the large contract extensions for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
The Leafs just can’t afford to pay fair money for middle-six forwards. They also can’t afford to put anything other than undervalued middle six forwards in their top six. It’s a situation we should be plenty familiar with by now.
Yet, those departures year after year never really hurt the team because there was always a “next guy” there to fill in. Calle Jarnkrok was the “next guy” for Ilya Mikheyev, Bunting was the “next guy” for Hyman, Ondrej Kase and David Kampf fit into that picture as well. For Kapanen and Johnsson it was Alex Galchenyuk and Jimmy Vesey. On and on the Leafs are continuously able to fill those gaps with readily available, under valued players on the open market. That’s not to mention the continuous pipeline of decent forward prospects they’ve had access to from long development projects, like Pierre Engvall and Pontus Holmberg.
I can’t tell you who the “next guy” is for Michael Bunting, but I know one exists, and the Leafs can find him. They have demonstrated that they can do that over and over again. All I’m telling you is that we should probably prepare, yet again, to see a hard-working fan favourite price himself out of Toronto.

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