7 destinations for Michael Bunting if he leaves the Leafs this summer
For two seasons, Michael Bunting served as perhaps the Toronto Maple Leafs’ best example of finding diamonds in the rough.
On a two-year contract worth just $1.9 million, Bunting put up back-to-back 23-goal seasons on the Leafs while fitting in seamlessly among Toronto’s top-six forward group.
Being nominated for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie at the ripe young age of 25, Bunting exceeded all expectations when he was first signed by Toronto as a free agent some seven years after originally being drafted by the Arizona Coyotes.
But at age 27, Bunting is set up for a major payday and a long-term contract that likely won’t be back in Toronto.
DailyFaceoff’s Frank Seravalli ranked Bunting as the league’s top potential free agent this coming July 1, while Evolving-Hockey.com projects him to sign a four-year contract worth $5.436 million, a dollar value likely far too rich for the Leafs to retain him.
Here are seven destinations that could make sense for the feisty forward in free agency this summer (with projected salary cap space from PuckPedia):
1. Chicago Blackhawks
Projected cap space: $40,928,211
The Chicago Blackhawks landed the first overall pick in this year’s draft lottery and the subsequent opportunity to select Canadian teenage hockey phenom Connor Bedard next month.
While Chicago isn’t expected to be very good next season, signing a top-line player like Bunting to skate alongside Bedard could make sense to help facilitate the future superstar’s development.
2. Seattle Kraken
Projected cap space: $20,343,423
The Seattle Kraken is in win-now mode, as strange as that may sound. In just two seasons in the NHL, the 2021 expansion franchise finished 12th in the league this season while upsetting the Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the playoffs.
They won’t have the opportunity forever to live fast and have a glutton of cheap contracts, so they might as well take the opportunity to splash on a player like Bunting, who’s right in the prime of his career.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins
Projected cap space: $20,208,158
For their entire careers, Penguins forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have made a legacy of fitting in with all sorts of different wingers en route to three Stanley Cups.
But at age 35 and 36, respectively, the window is ticking for the dynamic duo to make one or two final runs at Lord Stanley’s mug. With four UFA forwards coming off the books next season, making a run at Bunting could help Pittsburgh return to the playoffs after a surprising miss this past spring.
4. New Jersey Devils
Projected cap space: $34,282,500
Winning their first playoff series since 2012 this spring, the Devils are making their name as one of the NHL’s most exciting up-and-coming franchises led by former first-overall picks Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier.
With extreme amounts of cap space to spend for next season, fitting in a long-term deal for Bunting shouldn’t be an issue should the Devils look to prioritize it.
5. Buffalo Sabres
Projected cap space: $19,459,759
Crossing the border to sign with the Buffalo Sabres wouldn’t make too many Leafs fans happy, but it could be quite an opportunity for arguably the NHL’s most tortured current fanbase.
The Sabres desperately need their first postseason game since 2011 and their first postseason series win since 2007.
Signing with the Sabres would offer Bunting an opportunity to still play relatively close to home while giving Buffalo a chance to maybe get that final push to get back into the playoffs, as they missed out by just one point this past season.
6. Carolina Hurricanes
Projected cap space: $26,620,583
Does it ever feel like the Carolina Hurricanes are made up of a team of “Michael Buntings,” where they sign just about every cheap value contract in the league?
While Bunting would no longer be a “bargain” if he signs a deal at his expected value this summer, it’s another opportunity for him to slot in alongside a contender that’s had smart salary cap management to add a player of his calibre.
7. Detroit Red Wings
Projected cap space: $30,665,277
Like Buffalo, Detroit is anxiously awaiting a return to the postseason. While their drought hasn’t been as long as Buffalo’s — their last appearance was in 2016 — it’s still been agonizing for a fanbase so used to perennial spring success.
Bringing in a player like Bunting would potentially speed up that timeline, with Detroit currently having just $30.9 million committed to their forward group for next season.