The Leafs were wise not to extend Michael Bunting this summer after a breakout year last year

Bradley Celsie
November 13, 2022  (6:33 PM)

On July 28th of 2021, the Toronto Maple Leafs signed hometown kid Michael Bunting to a two-year contract worth $1.9 million ($950,000 AAV). At the time of the signing, no one thought he would prove to be such a vital piece of the Leafs last season. He was able to find a home on the team's top line (beside Matthews and Marner), putting up 63 points (23 goals & 40 assists) in 79 games. He also finished third in Calder voting as a 26-year-old rookie.

Fast forward to this season, his contract year. His overall impact has not been the same. Some felt the Leafs should have extended him in the offseason, because if Bunting put up similar numbers this year as he did last, he would certainly have priced himself out of Toronto. A potential contract comparable this summer was Carter Verhaeghe in Florida. Verhaeghe was in a similar position to Bunting - a 25-year-old who hadn't solidified himself as a regular NHLer. He signed a 2-year, $2 million deal ($1 million AAV) with the Panthers and vastly out-performed his contract in the first season, registering 36 points in 43 games. The Panthers decided to bet on Verhaeghe, extending him for 3 years, with a deal worth $12.5 million ($4.166,667 million AAV) while he still had a year left on his existing contract. This, despite the fact it was his first productive season. So far, that deal has paid off for the Panthers as Verhaeghe has continued to produce.
As for Michael Bunting, there was a report that had surfaced during the offseason that the Leafs were considering signing Bunting to an 8-year extension. No dollar figures were thrown around, but after the season he had in 2021-22, you'd have to imagine that the number would have been larger than many would have liked.
Early indications now are that the Leafs were wise not to bet him just yet. So far this season, Bunting has posted 6 points (2 goals & 4 assists) in 16 games. That is an average of 0.38 points per game - less than half of the 0.8 points per game he averaged last season. Over his past 10 games, Bunting has only produced 1 point, despite starting 6 of those games on the team's top line. His least productive 10-game stretch last season was October 27th - November 16th, when he produced 3 points. Additionally, his longest stretch without a point last season was 5 games, and that happened twice. So far this season, that has already happened once (October 24th - November 2nd) and he is currently pointless in his last 4 games. If you are thinking that his ice time has decreased, it hasn't. In fact, Bunting is averaging 15 minutes and 33 seconds of ice time per game so far this season, which is the exact same amount of ice time he averaged per game all of last year.
This is a huge year for Bunting, heading into unrestricted free agency. The truth is, if he puts up similar numbers this year as he did last, he is likely signing a long-term deal worth $5M per season - right around what Ilya Mikheyev signed for this summer in Vancouver, if not slightly more. He has obviously not helped his cause in the early going. That said, there is still plenty of season left and while a successful season for Bunting may ultimately price him out of Toronto, I am certain this is a problem Leafs management would love to have. If Bunting can help the team win this year, then go sign a massive contract elsewhere, the Leafs could take pride in knowing his time here was a massive success.
However, if Bunting did experience some success and wished to remain close to home, perhaps he'd be willing to take a hometown discount to remain with the Leafs and some of his closest friends in Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
Sources: hockey-reference, hockeydb, capfriendly, espn.com, nhl.com
The Leafs were wise not to extend Michael Bunting this summer after a breakout year last year

How much money should Michael Bunting earn per season next year?

$6 Million +72.3 %
$5 - $6 Million144.7 %
$4 - $5 Million4013.4 %
Below $4 Million23779.5 %
Latest 10 stories