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Michael Bunting to the Maple Leafs for $950,000

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Now official.

Italy v Canada: Group B - 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Photo by EyesWideOpen/Getty Images

Everyone seems to have the Michael Bunting-to-Toronto rumour this morning ahead of Free Agency. There’s enough smoke here that we can safely call this a signing waiting on the clock to tick over.

Update: now official and the two times $950,000 is confirmed.

Bunting, 26 next month, is a left-shooting left wing who is listed at 5’11” and 197 lb. Players who aren’t old enough to become UFAs, but have not played much NHL-level pro hockey can end up free agents early, which is how Bunting became a Group 6 UFA today.

Drafted in 2014 in the fourth round by Arizona, Bunting, from Toronto, played some junior hockey on the Soo Greyhounds. This connection to Sheldon Keefe and Kyle Dubas makes him the player they know, and we know they like to go out and get those when they can.

Bunting played three full seasons in the minors, including seven games in the ECHL in his rookie year, before getting a taste of life on the Coyotes. He had one goal in five games in 2018-2019, and another full year in the AHL followed that debut.

In the last three years in the AHL (all information from pick224.com), he’s padded out a good, but not spectacular, five-on-five performance with a lot of power play goals. His even-strength primary points have been between .46 and .56 per game over this period, and his shooting % has been average at around seven to eight. Future NHL stars in the AHL often have extremely high shooting percentages, even off the power play. His shot rate, at around three per game, is excellent for the AHL, but that includes power play shooting.

This past season at 25, he played 21 games in Arizona and 16 in Tucson in the AHL. What’s catching everyone’s eye is the 10 goals scored in the NHL, but he added only three assists to that for 13 points.

After Arizona’s season, he joined Team Canada for the World Championships in Riga, Latvia. Team Canada wrote a tale of perseverance that was genuinely uplifting to watch when they barely made the medal rounds but went on to win the gold medal. The final games featured breakout performances by Connor Brown (Ottawa), Conor Garland (Vancouver) Andrew Mangiapane (Calgary) and Adam Henrique (Anaheim). Micheal Bunting had zero points, while former Leafs free agent signing Trevor Moore made a good showing for himself on Team USA.

Moore recently signed an extension with LA for $1.875 million, an amount that Toronto could never pay a depth player like him. Which is why they’re signing players like Bunting and hoping he’s a late-bloomer who was kept from showing his true ability in a bad development system.

On the Coyotes this season, Bunting played 16.7 minutes per game in all-situations, which is a lot for a debuting forward who has been stuck in the AHL for years. He got some significant power play time but did not appear on the penalty kill. Three of his surprising number of goals came on the power play.

His usage was that of a middle-six forward, and he came into the lineup as Tyler Pitlick was injured. Pitlick, a forward with excellent defensive results and little offence, went to the Flames by way of Seattle’s claim and a subsequent trade. Bunting seems to be a player with a similar mix of results, although his overall offensive contributions, goals notwithstanding, seems a bit worse than Pitlick’s.

Bunting got to play with Garland and Nick Schmaltz as well as Clayton Keller, and he faced the standard average of quality of competition, so don’t mistake his single season for a highly sheltered easing in like you usually see with younger rookies.

In Bunting’s favour are his shot locations, in tight to the net. His power play activity was the same, with him at the net front. Not in his favour is his shooting rate, which is very low for a forward playing off the fourth line.

It’s easy to see what the Maple Leafs saw beyond their memories of the good old days in the Soo. He walked into a very difficult situation at the end of Arizona’s season and played very well in a role likely over his head. He’s a good personal shooter offensively, but not a line-driving dynamo. He handled the net-front on the power play, and faced other teams’ top lines without looking like a defensive liability.

His shooting % at five-on-five was 23%, so ignore the goals, but maybe there’s a good depth player here who can contribute offensively at a significantly higher level than most of the Leafs’ current third line. Or maybe he’s this year’s Jimmy Vesey. We’ll find out in the traditional way, when he plays some games in blue and white.

We’ll update you when we know what he’s actually signed for.