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Michael Bunting very well could be a 26-year old rookie of the year

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Photo credit:Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports
Ryan Hobart
8 months ago
I honestly can’t seem to stop myself from writing about @Michael Bunting. His season has been more impressive than anyone could have imagined. The way that he has fit in with @Mitchell Marner and @Auston Matthews has been quite something to watch, especially after the last couple of years of failed options there (@Joe Thornton and @Nick Ritchie come to mind in particular).
An unexpected cherry that could be added to the top of this season for Bunting is the Calder Memorial Trophy, the NHL’s rookie of the year award.
When one thinks of a rookie, we typically think of someone who is just a few years removed from junior or college hockey, not someone like Bunting who is in their 7th year of pro hockey. But, eligibility rules are what they are, and Bunting is eligible for the Calder this year. Barely.
The cutoff is that you have to have not yet played 25 NHL games in a single season, or more than 6 games in two different seasons. He played 21 games for Arizona last year, and 5 in the 2018-19 season, spending the 2020-21 season in the AHL. So, one game more in 2018-19 and he’s not a rookie this year. Wild, right?
It gets wilder. There’s another cutoff, which is that you must not have turned 26 on September 15th of the year of that NHL season. When did Bunting turn 26, you ask? September 17th, 2021.
So, by 2 days and 1 NHL game, Michael Bunting is a rookie. And why shouldn’t we make the most of that designation? It’s not like we’ve had much else to be happy about.
The “old” rookie debate is just as old as Bunting is. I’m not here for it. He’s eligible and therefore must receive equal consideration for the distinction of, and I quote the NHL’s criterion, “the most proficient in his first year of competition”. To me, it’s hilarious that Bunting will be the oldest Calder winner since they instituted the 26th birthday rule in 1990-91. Fun fact from Pro Stock Hockey: that rule was put in because of Sergei Makarov of the Calgary Flames, who was 31 years old when he won the Calder Trophy in 1989-90.
Another fun fact is, if Bunting plays out the rest of the year, he will tie the NHL record for most regular season games played with Rookie status with 108 games. Unless the NHL extends the regular season (I really hope they don’t, jeez) the maximum possible is 111.

Is he really the most proficient rookie?

Disclaimer: My case that he’s the rookie of the year comes with bias, of course, but so does anyone else’s.
The fact is that Bunting has been playing like top line player on his own merit. It would be easy to say that he is a passenger on a line with two elite players like Matthews and Marner. But that’s simply a fabrication by the opposition to discredit Bunting. It’s fake news.
Bunting has 37 primary points in all situations this year, 33 at even strength. That means he’s directly involved with scoring plays at a high level. That’s also 5 and 11 more than the apparent front-runner @Trevor Zegras has this year. @Lucas Raymond? I don’t know her. @Dawson Mercer is the only one really in competition at 26 even strength primary points, and no one seems to be talking about him.
When looking from the perspective of Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) model, Bunting isn’t just a top rookie this year, he’s a top 5 player in the league:
There is another model that would call Bunting a passenger, and because I’m an honest person I’ll include it here. That is HockeyViz’s Isolated Impact model. I’ll spare you the heat maps and just give you the Expected Goals model’s findings:
PlayerExpected Goals For / 60 % Above Lg. Av.
Expected Goals Against / 60 % Above Lg. Av.
Michael Bunting-5%-3%
Lucas Raymond+10%+6%
Trevos Zegras+0%-7%
Note: Negative on the right hand column is good, because on defense you want to allow less than league average, not more.
It gets more complicated when you add players from other positions. Thankfully, the only goalie remotely worth considering is @Jeremy Swayman, who has played 26 games for the Bruins this year and has a 92.5% save percentage. Still, he’s pretty well outside of Calder considerations.
The one non-forward who keeps coming up is @Moritz Seider, who leads rookie defenders in scoring and has been playing, apparently, a very strong two-way game. But, looking at these Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus (RAPM, read more here) charts, if there’s one defender I’m crediting with a strong two-way game, it’s our own @Timothy Liljegren:
 
In the HockeyViz model, Liljegren again has a slight advantage.
PlayerExpected Goals For / 60 % Above Lg. Av.
Expected Goals Against / 60 % Above Lg. Av.
Moritz Seider-2%-2%
Timothy Liljgren+0%-3%
I’m not claiming that Liljegren deserves a Calder nod over Seider, of course. Seider is having a great season and has stepped up into a pretty big role for Detroit. But still, he’s not alone in his class of Rookie defenders having great two-way seasons.

Final Thoughts

It’s clear to me that @Michael Bunting is the front runner for the Calder. I admit that I want that a lot, which biases my opinion, but what can be done about that? I’ve justified my stance to a reaosnable degree, using both my impressions of watching him play and the statistical models. He’s great. He’s the most proficient forward in the class this season, I don’t see any debate on that.
If it comes down to him and Seider, my take is that Seider’s season isn’t all that special, when the Leafs have Liljegren with a similar performance this season.
If the NHL were stupid enough to give me a Calder ballot, here’s how I would vote:
  1. @Michael Bunting
  2. @Moritz Seider
  3. @Trevor Zegras
  4. @Dawson Mercer
  5. @Lucas Raymond
What about you? How would your Calder ballot shape up? Let me know in the comments!

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