During the 2023 offseason, the Toronto Maple Leafs allowed a fair number of their pending free agents to walk.
The players that the Toronto Maple Leafs let go included Luke Schenn, Ryan O’Reilly, Justin Holl, Erik Gustafsson, Noel Acciari and Alexander Kerfoot just to name a few.
However, there’s one Toronto Maple Leafs player that the team may regret letting go, and that player is agitator Michael Bunting.
Two years ago, Bunting signed a two-year, $1.9 million contract with the Leafs after scoring 10 goals in 21 games for the Arizona Coyotes during the 2020-21 season.
The Leafs sure ended up getting full value for the deal, as Bunting would go on to post consecutive 23-goal seasons in each of the past two years, along with setting a career high in points with 63 in 2021-22.
The goal totals do not tell even close to the whole story about how effective Bunting was with the Leafs. In year one, he scored the same amount of 5v5 points as Connor McDavid did, and put up peripheral numbers akin to a franchise player.
Year two saw a drop off (which was inevitable) but he was still extremely valuable alongside Matthews and Marner.
The Leafs were getting incredible value from Bunting at $900K, but clearly felt that what he was doing was augmented by playing with Matthews and Marner enough so that a long-term, high-paying contract was not in the team’s best interest.
Bunting was ultimately let go in free agency to pursue other teams. In the end, he found a home with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Will Letting Michael Bunting Go Haunt the Toronto Maple Leafs?
But will the Leafs end up paying the price in a bigger way for not re-signing Bunting?
After all, he did click with the big boys as seen from his two productive seasons flanking Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
For those that bring up the argument that anyone would look good with those two, think back to when Nick Ritchie had that same opportunity a couple of years ago and how did that turn out? Several other players – Kerfoot, Mikheyev, Barabanov, Malgin – have been given the opportunity and failed to run with it.
So it’s not a guarantee that any player could excel under such circumstances, as they definitely needed to possess some skills and the right chemistry with the group.
In addition, Bunting carried a strong CF% of 57% in 2021-22 and a solid CF% of 52% in 2022-23 while playing at even strength, tilting the ice in the Leafs favour.
Not only that, but his competent ability to get under the opponent’s skin and drawing penalties has enabled the Leafs to grab extra power play chances over the course of the season.
In fact, in 2022-23, Bunting tied for the league-lead in drawn penalties with 42 in total. In addition, he was also the Leafs leader in goals and points on the team’s second power play unit with seven goals and 10 points.
This was considered tremendous secondary scoring output with the man advantage when the team was mainly first power play unit heavy for the bulk of the season.
The key part to fixing his main flaw that arose in the latter stages of his Leafs career is that if he could tone down his agitating style back down a bit so that both the NHL and the referees aren’t losing patience of his act, he would be back to being the effective player he once was with the team.
However, the Leafs weren’t willing to take the chance or providing the monetary investment to retain Bunting, so they better hope whoever they have with Marner and Matthews this year and whatever the second power play unit consists of, they better work out fine. (All stats from naturalstattrick.com)
By the way, Bunting has had a strong preseason to date with the Hurricanes, with 10 shots on goal, three goals and four points in three games played, all while being his usual pesky self but in a more controlled way.
If he manages to keep it up, the Leafs can only lament on the fact that they let the ideal, skilled scoring pest go for nothing in the end, which could potentially haunt them further down the road.