It's very likely you think more highly of Michael Bunting than I do. That's not a universal truth since I don't totally hate him as a player of anything, but I'm not convinced by him as a $5 million+ player or even as a player just taking up a spot on the Leafs top line at his current price.
It's been said dozens of times that the Leafs can't afford him. But of course they could, and they may actually acquire someone new in the lower end of his price range in the coming days, but the reality is, the Leafs can't afford to overpay someone as much as he will be overpaid in the marketplace. Particularly in the season where the talk is all about Florida's tough guys and how they did this that and the other thing (until their only real offense creator was injured, but never mind), Bunting and his > 1 PIM per NHL game played is going to get overpaid as an agitator. Good for him. Go forth and prosper.
So, what exactly were his strengths on the Leafs, and how hard is that going to be to replace him?
Taking his two seasons of play together on the Leafs and totally ignoring his 26 games in Arizona, one thing stands out about his shooting. He's not very good. His actual shooting % (based on unblocked shots) is 2.5 percentage points below Expected on the power play and 1.5 at even-strength. He's doesn't have stone hands, but his lack of shooting or "finishing" skill means he should shoot less than better players.
And he does! That's where a lot of his value lay. He shoots as much (or as little) at even-strength as Mitch Marner, and less by a lot than Auston Matthews and William Nylander. But he gets better individual Expected Goals than Marner by a great deal. Marner shoots a lot from farther out in his roaming territory where he's looking for seams and places to make passes. Marner scores a lot more goals than Bunting, and this dichotomy is more about how unique Marner is as a player than Bunting. But Bunting has shown an ability to shoot intelligently and maximize his proximity to the net to compensate for his lack of skill.
This is all about the cycle, keeping possession, positioning, forechecking, getting the puck to the right person, and a bunch of other things I've left out. It's a package of skills and behaviours that is extremely important for the Leafs and the offence-heavy shot-heavy system they play.
Bunting is good at this. Not excellent, not elite, not the guy who can ever be the best or even second-best guy on a top line. But good. He was better than Mitch Marner this past season by some metrics, much worse the year before, which is again, more about Marner having a year that wasn't great for some long stretches of time while the point streak show captured attention.
Auston Matthews is elite, in a class of very few active players. William Nylander is drifting around just at the door of the elite clubhouse.
Bunting is, it should be said, miles better than Calle Järnkrok or Alex Kerfoot.
He's not gifted at the power play. He's not terrible, and was often better than many of the other options open to the Leafs. One of the issues with a four forward (or five) power play is that number four is likely going to be just okay, which is nearly always better than a second defender.
Nullifying the other guy's offence creation
We don't really have a name for this, but what does the opposition offence do when faced with Bunting? It gets better. He almost completely offsets the defensive value of Mitch Marner if you put them on a line together. He almost completely offsets his own offensive creation. It's just not something he's good at. It's not bad enough, that if his offensive value is the one thing the team needs, you can't live with it – lot's of wingers are negative factors defensively.
He doesn't PK, so that's the sum total of his defensive results.
Bunting is about even on the effect of his penalties drawn vs taken overall. But the sheer quantity of both means he puts the Leafs out of five-on-five play more than any other individual, and is that good? If the goalie is very good at PK goaltending and given the Leafs power play, you might eke out some value by spending less time at five-on-five, but when the team is actually very good at five-on-five, the gain seems ephemeral to me. More power play time is good, but Bunting offered more special teams indiscriminately.
I used HockeyViz and Evolving Hockey to come to those conclusions, and they both line up fairly well on the measure of the man – modest but meaningful negative defensive impact, good offense at even strength, a null factor on the power play.
If you're playing him with lesser players on the third line, as Sheldon Keefe was doing in the playoffs when he wanted some offence from that line, you can justify him as the second-best player, but someone else has to be the primary shooter – something the Leafs didn't have. On the top line, you really better have someone hot like burning on the opposite wing because what Bunting brings is weak tea.
The Leafs did not have a hot like burning Marner this year, which shone a really bright light on the extent of Bunting's value. Marner declined in isolated effects offensively and defensively over his previous season of excellence, and that left Auston Matthews – injured part of the time – flying solo a lot.
None of this screams out $5.5 million player to me. He looks so damn busy on the ice, though. He has been compared to Zach Hyman so often, it makes me want to scream. Hyman has the same modestly bad impact on defence generally, but his offence creation is a few feet back of Nylander's. He's in the hall leading to the door that leads to the club house for the elite. Bunting isn't in the building. He's not Zach Hyman lite, he's an guy dressed as Hyman for Halloween.
Because both players forecheck and play a support role in the offensive zone, it's assumed they are defensive dynamos a lot of the time. If Bunting were, I'd be suggesting very strongly he be re-signed. But he is not. He's getting paid for points while not doing much of the work that generates the conditions where goals are scored and points are awarded and not helping at all on the other end of the ice. To be frank about it, that's John Tavares's job, and he does it better.
I can find you some other players just like Bunting, and they all earn what he's going to get. He's not overpaid in that sense, the market likes points! I can find you players bringing just as much value in quieter, less obvious ways who are a lot cheaper too.
It's possible Matt Knies is going to get the sidecar on the Matthews line for the season and what the Leafs should then be looking for is someone who can help make the most of what John Tavares has to offer, while enabling William Nylander to just keep on keeping on. These are two very different jobs, and it might well be that the smart play is to aim at the Tavares line and let Matthews just drive the top line by himself.
I'm going to unpack my thoughts on Tavares's mature value another day, but if you want points, he's your man.