On July 28, 2021, the Toronto Maple Leafs signed 25-year-old Michael Bunting to a two-year contract, carrying a cap hit of $950,000 per year. A move that had many members of Leafs Nation excited. Bunting was selected by Arizona in the 2014 NHL draft. He was picked in the fourth round, 117th overall. In his 2020-21 season, the Scarborough, Ontario native had 10 goals and 3 assists in 21 games with the Arizona Coyotes. Although his sample size in the NHL was small, his AHL stats were equally as impressive. In 16 games with the Tucson Roadrunners, he had 7 goals and 12 assists. But that wasn’t all that was on his resume. Bunting also won a gold medal with Canada at the 2021 IIHF World Championship. Sometimes referred to as a “late bloomer” by the media, it seemed like things were finally starting to heat up for the winger.
“So, what are we getting with Michael Bunting?” A question that many Leafs fans had at the time of his signing, including myself. We all knew that he was a good hometown boy with a Soo Greyhounds connection, but what else would he bring to the lineup?
Fast forward to mid February and we have a very clear picture of what Bunting brings. Grit, passion, skill. A legitimate top six forward who drives the net, scores goals, and makes filthy passes. His confidence and tenacity make him the perfect fit alongside Matthews and Marner. Like the Energizer bunny, he brings a surge of energy to the lineup, especially on nights when the team needs an extra boost. Not to mention, with his feisty attitude, he easily gets under the skin of opposing players. A “pest” if you will. Or as Kurtis Gabriel once called him, a “greasy rat”. A nickname that definitely stuck. This was something that made him a fan favourite in Toronto almost immediately.
In just 45 games with the Leafs, Bunting has put up an impressive 14 goals, 16 assists, 30 points. He is currently ranked fifth on the team in goals, just behind the core four: Matthews, Tavares, Nylander, and Marner. And with the high powered offence that this current Leafs roster has, that is an extraordinary feat.
Speaking of scoring goals, on January 29th, 2022, Bunting scored his first career hat trick as a Maple Leaf against the Red Wings. And it happened when Hockey Day in Canada was being hosted by Scarborough. Are you kidding me? The script could not have been written any better.
That moment Bunting cashed in on a beautiful feed from Marner to score his third of the game was one of the best memories of this season thus far. Leafs fans celebrated the hat trick together on social media. And for a moment, everyone was united. A rare occurrence in Leafs land. But that’s just the type of hockey player Michael Bunting is. He’s universally liked by the fanbase. And it’s really refreshing to have a player like that on the team.
Although Michael Bunting may not be a big name superstar, he has more than earned his spot on the Leafs top line. He plays hard. He has a great net front presence. He capitalizes on his chances. He leaves everything on the ice every single game. His value to this team is truly immeasurable. And with a price tag of $950,000 AAV, Bunting is arguably one of the best contracts in the NHL right now. At the time of his signing, it was a complete gamble, as is every other player acquisition. The gamble that Kyle Dubas took on Michael Bunting was low risk but very high potential reward. Now that the halfway mark in the regular season has passed, I think it’s safe to say that he was his best off-season signing. But as much as I’ve enjoyed Bunting’s regular season play, the playoffs are just around the corner. And I don’t know about you, but I cannot wait to see what #58 will bring when it matters most.