The summer of 2021 saw the departure of a hometown favourite and the arrival of a hometown favourite.
While many were added by @Zach Hyman’s decision to leave his boyhood team for the Oilers, few realized they were able to find his replacement at a cheaper cap hit when they nabbed @Michael Bunting. The Group 6 UFA certainly had the potential to make an impact for his childhood club, but not many could have foreseen just how integral he would become for the Leafs in his debut year with the team.
Fresh off a solid 21-game stint with the Coyotes where he recorded 13 points and earned a spot on Team Canada at the World Hockey Championship, Bunting followed that up by gaining a spot on the top line alongside @Auston Matthews and @Mitch Marner. It took him some time to earn that role (primarily because the Leafs tried using @Nick Ritchie on the top line) but once he got it, he never looked back.
MITCH MARNER HIT EM WITH THE FOUR
BUNTING DID THE MARNER ASSIST pic.twitter.com/aamLUKpZnl
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) February 27, 2022
Bunting went on to play in all but three games where he registered 23 goals, 40 assists, and 63 points to finish sixth on the team in scoring and points per game (0.80). He also led all rookies in scoring and was deservedly named to the All-Rookie team and nominated as a finalist for the Calder Trophy, for which he placed third in the voting behind @Trevor Zegras and eventual winner @Moritz Seider.
His final stat line wasn’t the only thing that was impressive about his breakout season with the Leafs, but it also applies to his underlying metrics. At 5v5, his numbers all across the board are eyepopping:
It is worth noting that his PDO is fairly high, but it could have been even higher had it not been for his on-ice save percentage (.889) dragging it down. But make no mistake: Bunting was playing at an elite level last year and the numbers confirm it.
Additionally, he finished 13th in the league in primary assists per 60 among players with a minimum of 1000 minutes played at 5v5. He was also effective at getting under the opposition’s skin by drawing the third most penalties in the league with 45, only behind @Pierre-Luc Dubois and @Connor McDavid. Combine all of that with his willingness to play a physical brand of hockey and hunt for loose pucks, a positive takeaway-giveaway ratio, and ability to create havoc in front of the net, it’s no wonder Bunting was able to have the success he did on the top line.
He was not quite as productive in the postseason due to a late-season injury that made him miss Game 1 against the Lightning and had him play catchup the entire time. Still, his three points in six games had him tied for seventh on the team.
Bunting could not have asked for a better first season with his childhood team and blew just about everyone’s expectations of what he could be. The 2022-23 campaign will have increased pressure on him to not only pick up where he left off but to try and build off the previous year and show that it wasn’t a fluke.
Entering the previous year, Bunting’s spot in the lineup was not a full guarantee. He may have been the favourite to earn a look alongside Matthews and Marner, but he had to compete with Ritchie to secure it as previously mentioned. There is no doubt that he will be pencilled in on the top line once again so the challenge for Bunting is to not get complacent. Of course, he will certainly be motivated to increase his bank account in a significant way since he only makes $950K and is entering his contract year.
Bunting will certainly be given every opportunity to succeed because Sheldon Keefe and Kyle Dubas have believed in him for a long time, dating back to when he was a member of the Soo Greyhounds. And by all accounts, his linemates get along well with him so they will do their part to ensure Bunting does well once again.
One thing that is working in his favour is the fact the majority of his points came at even strength.
Seeing the players ranked around him are among the best in the NHL right now, it is quite impressive to see him be so efficient in scoring at even strength. And this wasn’t just limited to last season as, during his 21-game stint in the 2021 shortened season, he finished 19th in the league in goals per 60 among players with at least 300 minutes at even strength.
The one knock that many have against Bunting’s success is the fact he primarily played with Matthews and Marner. He certainly benefited from getting a shot on the top line, but there was no guarantee it was going to work (ie: Ritchie). Quite frankly, Matthews and Marner reaped the rewards just as much because the two would go on to have dominant seasons. It is no coincidence that both had career years in goals with Bunting on their line.
Simply put, everything is set in place for Bunting to succeed once again. He is fresh off an impressive rookie campaign where he earned a spot on the top line and held his own sharing the ice with Matthews and Marner. He produced at an efficient rate, proved his worth as a pest, and recorded strong underlying numbers all across the board.
Bunting is deservedly a lock to remain in his current role and perhaps could gain even more responsibility with some openings on special teams. With one year remaining on his contract and right in the middle of his prime, there will be plenty of motivation to build off what he achieved in the previous campaign.
There are no guarantees in life, but Bunting appears destined to maintain his strong play in 2022-23.
Salary information from PuckPedia.com.
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