The Maple Leafs have made a low-risk bet on cheap scoring upside with the acquisition of 25-year-old left-winger Michael Bunting on a two-year, $950k AAV contract.

The Soo Greyhounds connections between the Leaf brass and Bunting made this a probable fit all along, and as MLHS reported last night, informal expressions of mutual interest between the sides were happening well in advance of the UFA window.

Bunting became a Group-6 UFA at Noon EST due to his accumulation of professional service in the AHL (three-plus seasons) and limited NHL experience (under 80 games) by age 25.

Bunting is a late-bloomer story through and through dating back to his junior days. Passed over twice in the OHL Priority Draft, professional hockey wasn’t on Bunting’s radar until much later than the typical future NHL draft pick — not until three years into high school when OHL interest started to pick up in the Scarborough native. In Bunting’s words, “One night, I was looking to see what college I was going to and the next I was looking at OHL teams and then the year after I was getting drafted to the NHL.”

After Dubas’ Greyhounds selected Bunting out of the GTHL in the ninth round in 2013, the 18-year-old rookie finished just shy of a point-per-game and heard his name called by the Arizona Coyotes in the fourth round of the 2014 draft. A big draft+1 season in the Soo under Sheldon Keefe — 37 goals and 74 points in 57 games — was followed by five seasons of development in the AHL with Springfield and Tucson.

“The Soo was great and I have great memories playing there. It was an awesome experience. Keefer pretty much ran it like a pro hockey team. He didn’t treat us like junior hockey players or like we were 16-year-olds,” he said of his former coach. “He’s still one of the best coaches I’ve had to this day. Just the way he reads you in the middle of the game was unbelievable and I have a lot of thanks for him for my development and the player I am today.”

– Michael Bunting on playing for Sheldon Keefe in the Soo

After racking up 19 points in 16 games with Tucson to start 2020-21, the Coyotes finally gave the 5’11, 200-pound Bunting an extended look down the stretch of the most recent NHL season through April and May. He was afforded some good opportunities to prove his mettle as he was deployed in offensive-zone situations next to some good players in nearly 17 minutes a night, including some looks alongside the likes of Nick Schmaltz and Clayton Keller at the top of the lineup as well as on the power play, where he played nearly two minutes a game.

Bunting’s run of goal-scoring form in his 21 NHL games is the reason he’s signing this one-way, two-year contract with Toronto today. He racked up 10 goals — five in his first six games of the season, including a hat trick versus the LA Kings. The former Don Mills Flyer is a hard worker who isn’t necessarily big or mean but will finish his checks and go to the net.

A few of his goals showed off his ability to beat a goalie clean with a good release — including a nice one-timer from the high slot versus LA — but by and large, Bunting made hay picking up tips and rebounds in front of the crease. His 26% shooting percentage obviously won’t last, but over his 20 games, he did consistently get to the net-front areas where goals are scored if we look at his elevated rates of individual high-danger chances and expected goals per 60. A few of his goals came off of good individual efforts to hound the last-defenseman back, force a turnover, and bury confidently.

“He just looked himself in the mirror last year and said, ‘I’ve got to be more professional and I’ve got to get myself ready to play. Came in in great shape, was sent down right away, no attitude. He was the best player in Tucson and [Roadrunners coach] Steve Potvin couldn’t say enough about him. A guy willing to go to the net. If you look at his goals, they’re all near the front of the net.”

– Former Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet on Michael Bunting

On the Leafs, depending on what other moves alter the makeup of their depth chart this offseason, there should be opportunities available on the left side of the lineup, where the Leafs lined up Zach Hyman (departing for Edmonton), Alex Galchenyuk (testing the market at the moment), Ilya Mikheyev, and Pierre Engvall last season.

This is a reasonable bet on untapped offensive upside at a cost-efficient price in a position of need for the Leafs. At $950k, it’s a case of nothing ventured, nothing gained as he can be stashed on the Marlies without any cap implications.