Maple Leafs sign Michael Bunting for two-years, $1.9M

Arizona Coyotes left wing Michael Bunting reacts after scoring a goal against the San Jose Sharks during the third period of an NHL hockey game Friday, May 7, 2021, in San Jose, Calif. The Coyotes won 5-2. (Tony Avelar/AP)

After walking away from the Arizona Coyotes and fielding interest from multiple suitors, Michael Bunting has signed with his hometown Maple Leafs.

It's a two-year pact carrying a cap hit of $950,000.

Spending his entire career under the radar, the late-blooming Bunting was drafted 160th overall in the 2013 OHL draft by then -- Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds GM Kyle Dubas.

Under then-Soo coach Sheldon Keefe, Bunting flourished offensively, racking up 116 points over his 105 OHL games played.

The connections are obvious, and the price should be right.

“It all comes down to value,” Dubas said last week of his free agency strategy.

Barring a trade off the roster (Alexander Kerfoot’s name has surfaced in rumours), the top-heavy Maple Leafs have roughly $4.6 million in their account to complete their 2021-22 lineup.

So, the club is waving adieu to UFAs Zach Hyman (seven years at $5.5 million in Edmonton), Alex Galchenyuk (exploring an eighth NHL franchise), Zach Bogosian (rejoining Tampa Bay for cheap), and possibly Nick Foligno (another Wild target).

Well, what about Bunting?

The 25-year-old left wing was a fourth-round choice by the Coyotes in 2014. He has spent at least part of the past six seasons in the AHL and has never put pen to paper on a one-way contract at the NHL level.

At five-foot-11 and 197 pounds, he’s a blue-collar-style player with legitimate blue-collar roots.

His mom, Lynda, was a bookkeeper at a local store. His dad, Andy, collected garbage for the city.

Despite growing up in the mecca, Bunting played high-school hockey for most of his formative years because AAA in the GTHL is so cost-prohibitive.

"I still remember the day," Bunting told of his tryout with the AAA Don Mills Flyers. "They showed me how much it would cost. I said, OK, I'll talk to you guys later. I don't think I'm going to play.' "

The Flyers worked out a payment plan, Bunting’s stock rose with his game, and he remains indebted.

Never forget where you came from.

Bunting fell into that rare Group VI group of free agents composed players who have played at least three pro seasons but fewer than 80 NHL games prior to turning 25.

Honing his skills in AHL Tuscon, Bunting quietly broke out in 2021, scoring 10 goals and registering nine takeaways (plus three assists) in 21 games while skating more than 15 minutes a night for a struggling Coyotes club.

He’s been primarily used in offensive situations (68.9 percent of his shifts start in the O-zone) and could either stick in the Leafs’ middle six or face a similar fate as, say, a Nic Petan -- an AHL/NHL tweener who went unqualified by Toronto Monday after multiple big-league opportunities.

Bunting’s high shooting percentage (26.3) could be viewed as a red flag or an indication of his willingness to drive to the greasy areas.

“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,’” former coach Rick Tocchet told Ken Campbell in May. “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.”

A new NHL contract marks a wonderful summer for Bunting, who won a world championship gold medal with Team Canada in June.

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