Last summer, the Toronto Maple Leafs took a low-risk flier on a 25-year-old winger with minimal NHL experience but had produced a decent amount and had a history of scoring at the AHL level.
Of course, that player was @Michael Bunting, who scored 23 goals and 63 points in 79 games with the Maple Leafs in 2021-22 en route to a Calder Trophy nomination. Bunting’s success this year is another reminder of the talent waiting to be discovered at the AHL level, having been buried in the Arizona Coyotes minor league system despite strong results for multiple seasons.
It wasn’t until late in the 2020-21 season when Bunting was given a shot in the Coyotes lineup, and he made good on the opportunity. His results, 10 goals and 13 points in 21 games, were largely driven by a high shooting percentage, but the signs were there of a player that could contribute to an NHL lineup.
So that brings the inevitable question, who is the next Michael Bunting?
Trying to find an exact comparable is basically impossible. Bunting’s situation last summer was a perfect storm. He had a history of good results at the AHL level, was given a chance at the NHL level late in the year and produced in those minutes, and just so happened to be a Group 6 UFA.
But what we can do, thanks to the wonderful data provided on Pick224.com, is look at Bunting’s prior results at the AHL level and see if there are any players with a similar statistical profile that could potentially break out at the NHL level if given an opportunity.
To do so, we’ll be using a three-year average of Bunting’s results in the AHL from 2018-2021 to find players of a similar profile:
- 1.62 even-strength points per estimated 60
- 9.66 shots per estimated 60
- 52.2 per cent even-strength goals for
Using these totals, we’ll search through the AHL’s 2021-22 results to find players that match these key totals from Bunting. To give a slight threshold, the parameters we’ll use for this search will be:
- Minimum 25 years old as of the start of the 2021-22 season
- Min. 1.50 EV PTS/e60
- Min. 9.50 SH/e60
- Min. 50.0% EV GF
Tampa Bay’s @Alex Barre-Boulet has been a breakout candidate for a couple of seasons now.
Signed as a free agent out of the QMJHL, Barre-Boulet stepped into the AHL and immediately scored at a near point-per-game pace. His 34 goal, 68 point rookie season back in 2018-19 had people comparing him to @Yanni Gourde, another undrafted free agent find by the Lightning.
Things haven’t quite panned out that way. While Barre-Boulet has scored at a point-per-game pace every season he’s been in the AHL, he’s yet to break into an NHL lineup. It looked like he would get his shot when he was claimed on waivers by the Seattle Kraken early in 2021-22, but he was quickly placed back on waivers after just two games and was re-claimed by Tampa Bay.
Barre-Boulet spent a vast majority of the season in the AHL again, where he dominated. He scored 63 points in 58 games, the best season of his career.
What’s most intriguing about Barre-Boulet, in addition to his history of production at the AHL level, is that his 2021-22 campaign could’ve been even better. He produced 10.6 shots per estimated 60 but had a lowly shooting percentage of just 8 per cent.
Barre-Boulet had scored at a 15 per cent rate in both 2018-19 and 2019-20, his last two full seasons in the AHL. While 15 per cent is on the high side, had he replicated this rate in 2021-22, Barre-Boulet would have another 30 goal season under his belt.
Notably, Barre-Boulet did get into 14 games with the Lightning this season, scoring three goals and five points. He does have two years remaining on his contract, so unless he’s traded or waived again, it will be the Tampa Bay Lightning that will get to see if he can find his game at the NHL level.
Just a few years ago, @Dylan Sikura was a top prospect coming out of the NCAA and was anticipated to make an immediate impact in the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Having scored over 50 points in less than 40 games in each of his final two seasons at Northeastern, big things were expected of Sikura. He split his first year of pro hockey between the NHL and the AHL, which to this point is the only season where Sikura has played a notable amount of NHL games.
Sikura recorded eight points in 33 games during that 2018-19 season with the Blackhawks, an underwhelming total given his high scoring collegiate years. While his defensive results were promising, Sikura found himself back in the AHL the following season and was later traded to the Vegas Golden Knights.
Last summer, Sikura was a Group 6 UFA and signed with the Colorado Avalanche, where he finally broke out at the AHL level. He scored 33 goals and 73 points in 60 games with the Avalanche’s affiliate, far exceeding his previous career-high scoring rate of 0.76 points per game.
Unlike what you would expect given his elite collegiate production, Sikura’s been more of a solid offensive player with good defensive results so far as a professional. This year, his defensive game took a bit of a step back but was more than made up for by his big step up in production.
At 27 years old, though, Sikura’s breakout might be coming a bit too late to result in a second legitimate shot in the NHL. He’s shown to be a positive defensive player in his limited NHL action as well as his past seasons in the AHL, so maybe a team gives him a look on their fourth line following his offensive break out.
Sikura is a regular UFA this summer.
Sticking with the Colorado Eagles, Dylan Sikura’s teammate @Kiefer Sherwood also had quite the season.
Sherwood has a fair amount of NHL experience, having played 87 games spread across four years, but has not appeared in more than 16 games since his rookie season. He was signed as an undrafted free agent out of college by Anaheim back in 2018 and has bounced between the NHL and AHL since.
He signed with the Avalanche prior to the 2020-21 season after being non tendered by Anaheim. Sherwood actually played more games in the NHL than the AHL during that season, appearing in 16 games with the Avalanche and even getting into two playoff games. When he did play in the AHL, he was a force to be reckoned with, scoring 10 goals and 16 points in 10 games.
This year, Sherwood backed up his small sample of stellar play with a dominant campaign. He scored 36 goals and 75 points in the AHL, ranking near the top of the AHL charts in essentially every category.
Sherwood has also been a positive xGAR player in three of the four years he’s played in the NHL. He’s been solid in the limited NHL minutes he’s received over the past three seasons and has absolutely dominated the AHL over the last two.
After being retained last summer by Colorado as an RFA, Sherwood is a UFA this time around. At 27 years old, Sherwood has played well enough the past two years to earn a longer look at the NHL level, regardless of whether he returns to the Avalanche organization or looks elsewhere.
Similar to Kiefer Sherwood, Nashville’s @Matt Luff has played 87 career games in the NHL over four seasons. He’s been a tweener for multiple years now, almost evenly splitting time between the NHL and AHL, and has yet to truly grab a spot on an NHL roster despite playing over 10 NHL games each of the past four years.
Luff signed with Nashville last summer after five years in the Los Angeles Kings organization when he was non tendered. He had a strong year in the AHL, exceeding the point per game mark for the first time with 14 goals and 31 points in 30 games. He also got into 23 games with the Predators, scoring six points.
Luff’s best and most consistent statistical trait has been the ability to get pucks on net. He has ranked in the 90th percentile or better in shots per estimated 60 in each of his past three seasons in the AHL.
With his 6-foot-2 frame, Luff fits the role of a typical fourth-liner more than the rest of the players mentioned in this article. Even though Luff doesn’t play an especially physical style, simply being bigger means he’ll likely get more chances than the rest to play in the NHL.
For Luff, his individual shot generation bodes well for creating chances for himself at the next level. Even in the NHL this year with Nashville, Luff maintained his ability to get pucks on net and ranked fourth on the team in 5v5 shots per 60 among players with more than 200 minutes.
Luff is an RFA this summer for the Predators and given his small qualifying offer, time spent on their NHL roster, and success at the AHL level, I would expect him to remain an RFA.
Chase De Leo
@Chase De Leo has bounced around a fair bit in his career. Drafted by the Winnipeg Jets, De Leo played in their organization for three seasons before being traded to the Anaheim Ducks. He then spent another three seasons in the Ducks organization before becoming a Group 6 UFA and signing with the New Jersey Devils.
It looked like De Leo had stalled out at the AHL level back in 2020. He was on an upward progression having scored 55 points in 66 games the previous year in San Diego but followed it up with just 25 points in 51 games in 2019-20.
Then came a resurgent 2020-21 campaign, where De Leo scored 35 points in 37 games. This year, in the Devils system, he backed it up as he led the team in scoring with 56 points in 55 games, setting a career-high in goals and points.
De Leo has sporadically played at the NHL level with seven career games spread over seven years. He’s played games for all of Winnipeg, Anaheim, and New Jersey, but never more than two in a single season.
The issue for De Leo is his size, listed at 5-foot-9, and his subpar defensive play. His scoring has been strong in back-to-back seasons, with even more offence left to be untapped with his high shot generation and average shooting percentage, but is there a team that would be willing to give him a run of games to see if he can do it in the NHL?
De Leo is again a Group 6 UFA this summer, just as Bunting was a year ago. It will be interesting to see if he returns to the Devils organization in hopes to crack the bottom of their lineup, or looks for an opportunity elsewhere.