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Why the Leafs believe in Michael Bunting

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The former Soo Greyhound keeps proving himself everywhere he lands.

Los Angeles Kings v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images

Michael Bunting signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs was perhaps the least surprising acquisition for the team on the opening day of free agency. The story is a familiar one in a long line of former Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds being brought into the organization to unite with GM Kyle Dubas and Head Coach Sheldon Keefe.

Bunting, from Scarborough, has been overachieving his entire career, having not even played AAA hockey until he was 17-years-old, he played for the Don Mills Flyers. Bunting led his team with 27 goals in his first year of AAA hockey, and nobody else had more than nine. That breakout year led to then Greyhounds GM Kyle Dubas selecting Bunting in the ninth round as a double overager.

Bunting made the Greyhounds the following season, his NHL draft year, and had an immediate impact, scoring 15 times and putting up 42 points in 48 games under Keefe. The playoffs brought much of the same as Bunting potted five goals in nine games.

He was then drafted by the Arizona Coyotes in the fourth round (117 overall) at the 2014 NHL draft, just one year removed from being drafted in the ninth round of the OHL draft. That’s quite a steep trajectory and Bunting has continued to beat the odds ever since.

Bunting took hold of a bigger role for the Greyhounds in the 2014-15 season, sporting an “A” while putting up 74 points in 57 games (37 goals, 37 assists), third on the team behind first round pick and Leaf legend Jared McCann, and electrifying forward Sergei Tolchinsky (46 points in 51 games, and 20 points on the way to a Cup win in the KHL this season). Bunting and the Greyhounds were knocked out of the playoffs in the OHL conference finals by a high-powered Erie Otters team led by Connor McDavid, Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat. Travis Dermott and Mason Marchment were also on that team, as well as some other recognizable names. I had the privilege of attending two of those games here in the Sault, but I’d be lying if I said I remember much detail other than Darnell Nurse trying his best to shadow McDavid for what felt like 35 minutes per game.

McDavid had five points in that deciding game six, DeBrincat had a hat-trick, and Dermott added four assists. It would be the final OHL game for both Bunting and Keefe, before turning pro. Bunting scored early in the game from a set up by McCann.

Bunting has since played 323 AHL regular season games, putting up 205 points with 152 coming over 193 games since 2017. He was second on the team in points twice over three full seasons and third in the other. Bunting has done nothing but improve year in and year out ever since he showed up on Dubas’ radar with the Don Mills Flyers back in 2012 until he was rewarded with a brief five game stint with the Coyotes during the 2018-19 season. He scored his first NHL goal during that stint and it looked like a lot of goals he scored in his career before it and since then — a result of getting to the net and finding a loose puck in the chaos.

The scrappy winger has made a career out of creating chaos right in tight to the net, and it looks as though he’s now established himself as a regular NHLer. Bunting was called up to the Coyotes at the end of March, scoring a goal and notching a primary assist in his first game back in the league despite his team getting run over 9-3 by the Colorado Avalanche.

The goal came in very un-Bunting-like fashion, bumping superstar defender Cale Makar off stride while sneaking in behind him and catching a stretch pass before roofing the puck over Philipp Grubauer.

I truly don’t think I ever saw Bunting skate the puck himself any further at any point than he did on that goal. He’s usually making quick passes to teammates in stride, which his awareness on the ice makes possible on a consistent basis. I found myself watching him and considering how effective a winger can possibly be while carrying the puck so little, but he’s so good at maximizing the rest of his skills that he’s still able to play at a high pace.

The assist, though, was pretty on-brand as Bunting was lurking at the net front when Brandon Saad briefly intercepted a net front pass headed for Bunting. Bunting quickly poked the puck free to Conor Garland who hammered the puck home.

Bunting never looked back, scoring ten goals in 21 games for the Coyotes on his way to free agency at the age of 25. There was some good fortune involved as his 26% conversion rate clearly implies, but he also almost exclusively shot from the most dangerous areas of the ice. His expected shooting percentage, based on shot location, was highest on the Coyotes and, for that matter, higher than any Toronto Maple Leaf. Bunting’s individual shot map paints a pretty good picture of what he does best.

Reviewing all of his goals continues to solidify this obvious pattern with several tip ins and goals being whacked into the net from in the crease. The goal scored furthest from the net came on a one-timer from the dead centre of the ice about a foot above the hashmarks. Bunting got some powerplay time as well, scoring three goals and never travelling very far from the net. On the night he scored his first career hat-trick against the LA Kings, he scored two powerplay goals while standing on top of the goalie and willing the puck into the net.

By now you’re probably thinking it, so yes, there is a lot of Zach Hyman in his game. It’s pretty clear that the Leafs think Bunting has a chance to be the next Hyman, the tenacious grinder with a strong motor that will not only help him and the team now, but also help him maximize his talent in the coming years. He can’t skate like Hyman could at this point, but he does have a sneaky good shot when he finds a soft spot or shoots off the rush every so often.

Upon reviewing several of Bunting’s games during his late season run with the Coyotes, it’s hard not to come away believing in his game. Bunting is a relentless worker who has never come across a puck battle he didn’t immediately throw himself into, but he’s also an intelligent player. He’s the type of player who requires both that motor and that brain because he’s not a great skater for a smaller player. He’s relentless on the forecheck and all over the ice, constantly pressuring opposing puck carriers and making easy plays difficult.

Bunting’s intelligence allows him to read plays early in development so that he’s often able to get to spots quick enough to disrupt plays despite his lack of explosive speed. An improvement in his foot speed could help him a lot in this area, and I imagine the organization has big plans for him in terms of working on his skating with Barb Underhill as we’ve seen with others in the past. The team clearly believes strongly in Underhill’s ability and therefore like to bring in projects who have tools, but are being held back by skating. This is less of a project as Bunting has shown he’s perfectly capable of being an effective player as is, but he could raise his potential significantly with some big improvements in that area.

In the defensive zone, Bunting looked pretty solid to my eye. The winger was often the deepest forward in the zone, helping out down low and cutting off the middle lane in the slot quite often disrupting cross ice passes like a centre. Bunting always has his head on a swivel when he’s playing off-puck defence and visibly communicating with teammates directing traffic. His awareness and effort level helps him disrupt a lot of plays he looks like he shouldn’t be able to get to.

All of his traits make Bunting a real pain to play against, and he clearly thrives in the midst of chaos. In one of the games I reviewed, he and Anze Kopitar were warring all over the ice, even when the puck was 50 feet away. Kopitar was becoming visibly agitated with him as the game went on and it was made worse by Bunting cleaning him out on three straight offensive zone faceoffs. Bunting is a winger, but he was the only left-hand shot on his line, so he took the strong-side draws in the offensive zone and kept cleanly beating the veteran superstar centre.

Ultimately, I imagine Bunting is going to endear himself to both Leafs fans and his teammates very quickly. Bunting will be counted on to contribute as a swiss army knife of sorts, able to play on whichever line he’s placed on. He very rarely carries the puck, relying on his teammates to give him options for a quick pass instead, so he’s best suited as a complimentary player on a line as of now rather than a real play-driver. The Leafs are also pretty weak at left wing at the moment, especially after Hyman’s departure, so he looks like he’ll get a real shot at a top six role right out of the gate. It’s an incredible opportunity for the hometown kid who became a UFA at 25 after only 26 NHL game. He evidently agrees, as he apparently left money on the table to come to the Leafs. On a two year deal at under $1M per, there is real potential for him to provide huge value to the team.

It’d be hard to bet against him thriving in whatever role is asked of him at this point.