In our latest post that identify players that could be potential acquisition targets for the Washington Capitals this offseason, we’re going to take a look at pending unrestricted free agent left-wing Michael Bunting, who is currently playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. With Washington looking at reshaping and retooling their roster for the 2023-24 season, adding a top-six forward with a scoring touch is at the top of the list of priorities for GM Brian MacLellan.
The statistics and salary cap information used in this post are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference, CapFriendly, Dobber Sports, and Evolving Hockey. If you’d like to learn more about the statistical terms used in this post, please check out our NHL Analytics Glossary.
With Anthony Mantha struggling to cement a top-six role, let alone an everyday NHL role after getting scratched in Washington’s 5-2 loss to the St. Louis Blues on Friday, the 27-year-old addresses the need Mantha is failing to fulfill.
Bunting has primarily played with center Auston Matthews and left-wing William Nylander (381:48) but Mitch Marner has also played quite some time with him and Matthews (236:12).
With 43 goals in 147 games over the last two seasons (tied for 90th in the NHL), Bunting will give Washington, who is slightly below league average with an 8.49% five-on-five shooting percentage in 2022-23, another finisher (15.2%).
Bunting was drafted 117th overall by the Arizona Coyotes in the 2014 NHL Draft. He has tallied 54 goals and 117 points in 173 career regular-season games with Arizona and Toronto, including 20 goals and 44 points in 68 this season. Bunting finished last season’s first-round Stanley Cup Playoff series vs. the Tampa Bay Lightning with two goals and three points in six games.
Toronto currently has $16,422,717 left in NHL salary cap space for next season but with just 14 players signed. However, they will also have to re-sign Matthews, who can sign a contract extension on July 1 and can become an unrestricted free agent after next season, and pending restricted free agent starting goaltender Ilya Samsonov so finding money to re-sign Bunting is going to be hard.
Five-on-Five On-Ice Performance
Here’s Bunting’s performance in possession metrics during five-on-five play this season:
- 51.16% Corsi-for percentage
- 54.63% expected goals-for percentage
- 53.74% scoring chances-for percentage
- 52.88% shots-for percentage
- 65.91% goals-for percentage
All of these numbers are solid, though inflated with exposure to Matthews, Marner, Nylander, and the rest of Toronto’s high-flying offense.
Though, Toronto is tied for 15th in Corsi-for percentage (50.76%), ranks ninth in expected goals-for percentage (52.87%), sixth in scoring chances-for percentage (53.43%), seventh in shots-for percentage (52.5%), and fourth in goals-for percentage (56.67%) at five-on-five, Bunting outperforms his teams’ cumulative metric in each of his individual measurements.
67.95% of Bunting’s zone starts this season have come in the offensive zone and he has never finished with a mark below 62% in that category during each of his four NHL campaigns. While Bunting may get a lot of offensive zone starts, he takes advantage of it.
Bunting’s expected goals-for rate may be overwhelmingly below his actual goals-for rate, but his expected ratio is already pretty solid and the finishing ability of Matthews, Marner, and Nylander inflate Bunting’s actual percentage.
Toronto is already a very good team but is even more so with Bunting on the ice.
Bunting’s five-on-five chance generation performance this season:
- 54.59% high-danger Corsi-for percentage (after finishing with 61.75% last season)
- 63.04% high-danger goals-for percentage
While Bunting’s high-danger Corsi-for percentage has come down, it was always going to be difficult to duplicate his performance in that category last season even with the talent surrounding him. Bunting is still performing very well overall even if the numbers have gone down from 2021-22, when Toronto set a franchise record for wins in a season.
Rate-Adjusted Plus Minus (RAPM)
Rate-Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM) is an efficient way to measure a player’s performance in relation to the league, and in relation to replacement level. Here is Bunting’s RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey:
Data: Evolving Hockey
Overall, as demonstrated in the on-ice metric percentages above, Bunting thrives in goals for-per-60 and is still better than average in the replacement level benchmark in expected goals for-per-60. His expected goals-against per 60 and Corsi-against per 60 may be down but MacLellan has expressed a desire for a top-six forward with skill, not necessarily a shutdown forward.
Bunting has five goals (fifth on Toronto) and eight points (sixth) on the power play, but plays at least a minute (1:51) under Toronto’s top power-play unit per game. His lack of opportunity playing on the man advantage could be a factor in his relatively poor performance on the power play. He could get some time on Washington’s top unit if he were on the roster but that is not a given. Though, if right-wing T.J. Oshie were to get injured as his track record suggests, he could be near the front of the line to take his spot.
To highlight how well Bunting has performed in his situation in Toronto, here is the team’s RAPM chart:
In the offensive categories at even-strength, Bunting once again outperforms his team’s averages. His expected goals-for on the power play may not be the best, but it is hard for him to get the opportunity with Matthews, Nylander, Marner, and center John Tavares eating all of the minutes.
Bunting could fit on a line with center Dylan Strome in the top-six and come with a salary cap hit of around $4.5 million. Washington currently has $7,369,166 of cap space with a very likely salary cap ceiling of $83.5 million next season. The team will have to tender new contracts to restricted free agent defensemen Martin Fehervary and Alexander Alexeyev but the two will not take up the rest of Washington’s remaining cap space.
The possibility of dealing Mantha in addition to losing Conor Sheary in free agency would create the roster space necessary to make room for Bunting. While Bunting may not be the best all-around player, Washington could use to boost offensively and he certainly brings it.
Does This Make Sense For Washington?
Yes, MacLellan stated his desire to add a top-six forward and Bunting fits the age range and skill level that the team wants and needs. He would slot behind Alex Ovechkin and has shown that he has a lot to give to a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. Bunting has also shown his ability to play with and complement high-level talent in Toronto.
By Harrison Brown