Much like the Toronto Maple Leafs 2021-22 season, Michael Bunting’s career is quite the story.
Since signing a two-year deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs last July, Bunting has been one of the best bargains in hockey; scoring 23 goals and collecting 40 assists with a lowly 925,000 dollar cap hit.
Bunting leads all NHL rookies in points and is second in goals and assists. Despite what you may think about his age, this is a guy who had played 26 games at the NHL level before this season. He should absolutely be considered for the Calder Trophy.
I digress. This article is not about whether or not Bunting should win the Calder, it’s about what he has brought to the Toronto Maple Leafs since replacing Zach Hyman.
Michael Bunting’s Impact On the Toronto Maple Leafs
Leafs fans knew that the 2020-21 season would most likely be Zach Hyman’s last in Toronto. Then the Edmonton Oilers offered up a seven-year-deal for the hard nosed forward. Hyman has gone on to hit a career high in points in Edmonton with 50 in 70 games so far this season, and is still the same player he was in Toronto. I said at the beginning of the season that Hyman’s production wouldn’t be difficult to replace. I was kind of right.
The Leafs came into the season thinking that Nick Ritchie would be the guy to plug in to Hyman’s spot. As we all know, it didn’t work. Then Sheldon Keefe gave the 26-year-old guy from Scarborough a shot. Bunting has been the best fit for the Matthews-Marner line that we’ve seen. While being a more skilled player than Hyman, he can also be the guy to do the dirty work.
Bunting is less physical than Hyman, but there’s a certain edge to his game that can spark the rest of that top line when needed. He’s also more skilled with the puck than Hyman. He’s a better passer and is a faster skater. I get Brad Marchand-vibes from his game with how skilled he is and how… unpleasant he can be towards opposing players and goaltenders. No, I am not saying he’s as good as Brad Marchand, comment section. I’m saying that their games have similar qualities.
The case can be made that Bunting benefits from having Austin Matthews and Mitch Marner on his line, and he absolutely does. However, that is a two-way street.
Matthews and Marner have been noticeably more consistent on a nightly basis since Sheldon Keefe put Bunting in that spot. Marner specifically has been a much more aggressive player this season and having another skilled player on the top line gives Auston Matthews another guy to feed him the puck.
Are we just going to chalk it up as a coincidence that both Matthews and Marner are playing the best hockey of their careers with Michael Bunting on their left side? Both players are going to finish with more than 100 points this year for the first time. Both players are going to finish in the top-ten in points. Matthews AND Marner already have a career high in goals this season. It might be something to look at when Bunting becomes a UFA after next season.
That is of course, if the Leafs have success in the postseason.
We’ve been told that this new-look top line is better suited for playoff hockey, and personally I think this entire roster is well-suited for playoff hockey when the number one goaltender is healthy.
However, as we Leaf fans are all pessimistic and skeptical until the end, we need to see it to believe it.
So let’s play the “If” game.
If the Leafs make it to, say, the Eastern Conference Finals or even the Stanley Cup Finals, and then the Bunting-Matthews-Marner line has another great season, Kyle Dubas will have a big decision to make. Will Bunting be a candidate for an extension? Personally I think he will be, this first line has been overpowering opponents all season long, but I need to see how the top-line and the rest of the team look in the first round against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
I’m going to close this with one final point.
With Matthews banged up, Keefe sat him against the New York Islanders on Sunday night. Bunting started on the third line. When the Leafs looked out of sorts up front, Keefe put him back on the top line with Tavares and Marner. The Leafs then came back and beat the Islanders.
Michael Bunting isn’t just along for the ride in Toronto. He is an important part of the team and will be a vital piece come playoff time.