Measuring the impact of Michael Bunting’s absence from the Maple Leafs’ lineup

Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
11 months ago
There is a lot of hyperbole that comes with the Maple Leafs in general, so when you have a situation where a top six forward receives a multiple game suspension in the playoffs, the hyperbole tends to be dialed up to 11. In the past 24 hours, I’ve seen everything from “Bunting being out is good because he was becoming a liability anyway” to comparisons to having Kadri suspended for the remainder of the Boston series. As with most things, the truth falls somewhere in between. Bunting is by no means as impactful as Nazem Kadri, especially if you are to isolate them to their individual skill levels. At the same time, swapping Bunting out for Matthew Knies or a 7th defenseman and handing the majority of his workload over to Alex Kerfoot is not an ideal situation either. So let’s look at what a measured response to Bunting being gone for three games looks like.
In late March, at the height of Bunting’s struggles, I took a look at how he was performing and who he was getting the best results with. A lot of Bunting’s success was tied to being on the ice with Auston Matthews and having either Mitch Marner or ideally William Nylander on the other wing.
There wasn’t anything clicking when Bunting was with Tavares outside of a power play setting and finding a use for Bunting as a bottom six agitator who could chip in some offense wasn’t working either.
Bunting WithTOI WithCF% WithBunting CF% WithoutCF% Without BuntingGF/60GF% WithxGF% With
Auston Matthews655.3853.2745.8253.734.3070.1558.47
William Nylander501.7351.3151.2953.463.9566.0054.30
Mitchell Marner351.6253.5050.1952.813.2467.8658.13
John Tavares188.6749.2151.8651.912.2350.0050.83
Calle Jarnkrok53.0046.2351.3349.634.5366.6737.56
David Kampf39.4240.3051.6848.006.0966.6746.25
Alexander Kerfoot38.4850.7751.3252.884.68100.0057.07
Pontus Holmberg28.8034.4351.2949.912.0850.0042.01
Sam Lafferty24.2231.9149.8336.890.000.0032.04
Noel Acciari18.5351.5248.8150.183.24100.0063.64
Ryan O’Reilly8.7550.0048.9952.726.8650.0050.66
Wayne Simmonds6.6031.2549.8845.300.000.0026.66
Alex Steeves5.8033.3346.3845.830.000.0041.82
Zach Aston-Reese5.2810.0051.5146.810.002.63
Bobby McMann1.12100.0051.2352.880.00100.00
My most optimistic conclusion then and somewhat still holds true now is that Bunting might be able to find some level of effectiveness with Ryan O’Reilly in a third line setting, especially if someone like Alex Kerfoot was there to balance him out.
At that time Jarnkrok had established himself as the better winger for Auston Matthews and as we saw late in Game One, that is still looking to be the case.
Now all of this makes a strong case for why it’s not the end of the world that Bunting is out, but to say he’s not going to be missed or he hasn’t added any value to the Leafs in the past month and half remains a silly argument to make.
Michael Bunting is still the best in the league at drawing penalties. He might have taken a few more this year, but the fact remains he is the league leader in drawn penalties. Even if you look at the last 20 games of the season, Bunting was 5th in the league (10) when it came to penalties drawn, only 3 behind Elias Pettersson. He is effective in that regard and when the Leafs have a strong power play and highly competent (most of the time) penalty kill, the Bunting penalty trade off is a manageable one.
The Leafs losing a 23 goal scorer is also going to be felt. Even if Bunting was reliant on either the power play or playing on the Matthews line for those results, Bunting’s absence waters down the second power play unit and negates the opportunity to try to see if he could find some level of offensive chemistry with O’Reilly, even if Jarnkrok being reunited with Matthews seems like the right call.
Having Bunting out means a greater reliance on Alex Kerfoot who hasn’t shown anything resembling consistent offense this season or the Leafs crossing their fingers and hoping for the best out of Matthew Knies to fill in the gaps. I didn’t mind the idea of taking that chance on Knies being able to give the Leafs more when it involved Aston-Reese or Lafferty coming out of Toronto’s lineup to make it work, but expecting him to step into Bunting’s role is a much bigger ask and at best gets Toronto back to their baseline production rather than elevating it.
So where does that leave the Leafs?
With Bunting out and somewhat through reacting to being blown out 7-3, the Leafs practiced with lines that are carrying a bit more balance. The promotion of Jarnkrok to Bunting’s spot looks like a step in the right direction and Kerfoot landing on the Leafs second line might have happened anyway in an attempt to have some semblance of defensive zone responsibility on a line with Tavares and Nylander. It looks like more will be asked of Knies than probably should be in his playoff debut and that’s where Bunting’s absence will be felt the most. And even if Knies was going to be on the line anyway, having Bunting as a potential option to play with Knies and O’Reilly would increase the chance for offense over relying on Noel Acciari.
Assuming Knies should have been in for Game Two anyway and O’Reilly should be at 3C, it seems like the trade off is Bunting vs. either Aston-Reese or Lafferty. And maybe either of those two players playing at the top of their game can negate Bunting’s absence further.
The Leafs will miss Bunting, by most accounts he seems to be a very popular teammate and up until the realities of his next contract set in, Bunting was very much a fan favourite too. His absence will be felt but it can’t be an excuse for the Leafs to lose.
Data Sourced from Natural Stat Trick

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