The offseason is a time of uncertainty for many NHL players, especially those heading to free agency. The Toronto Maple Leafs Michael Bunting is one of those players.
It’s pretty clear that Bunting wants to play at home in Toronto – or at least did when he signed here two seasons ago. Has that changed? We might soon see.
Bunting finds himself in what would seem to be a positive situation. He’s certainly earned a contract somewhere based on his two seasons with the Maple Leafs. He came in third in the Calder Trophy voting in his rookie season and he had a similarly strong season in 2022-23 as well. Twenty-goal scores are hard to come by in the NHL and Bunting potted 23 goals both seasons.
Why No Contract Talks During the Season? Good or Bad?
It seems that contract talks between Bunting and the team did not take place during the season. Does this lack of discussions might indicate that Bunting is keen to test the market and explore other offers? Or, is it just a preference on both parties?
Still, for Bunting fans (and there are many, including me) the question arises: “Is this a positive or negative development for both Bunting and the Maple Leafs?”
What four factors might be at play?
Factor One: Performance and Playoff Controversies
For some fans, Bunting’s play with the Maple Leafs has been a mixed bag. He’s young and still learning so that might not be much of a surprise. On one hand, he showcased the kind of skills and abilities that would make passionate Maple Leafs’ fans, who always appreciate their hometown players, happy. He’s had his moments where he’s absolutely shone. And, he’s been a solid contributor overall.
However, during this season’s Round 1 of the playoffs, he raised some concerns by getting suspended for three games. That seemed to be the apex of an eroding relationships between Bunting and NHL officials during the entire season. To say that situation was strained might be a bit of an understatement.
But it’s true that when he came back from his suspension, he behaved himself well – at least well within acceptable limits. That didn’t stop opponents from beating on him, and his wise lack of retaliation helped his team gain (some) additional power-play chances.
Although it seemed to me that Bunting had learned a tough and valuable lesson, what will his relationship with officials be next season? Have these incidents have left a shadow of doubt over his long-term wisdom as a player or his commitment to the team?
Factor Two: Exploring the Free Agency Market
Given both his own on-ice success and the the events of the past season, it’s understandable that Bunting might want to explore the free agency market. Testing the waters allows him to gauge his value and consider other offers. He could still take a team-friendly offer from his Maple Leafs if they offer it. He had done so when he first signed with the team – leaving money on the table by not choosing offers from other teams.
On one hand, it would seem unwise for any player not to at least explore what else might be in the wind before he settled. However, if a player really wanted to stay in Toronto (such as Morgan Rielly has done), what is the difference between $3 million and $2.25 million? When you are making that much money, and you are where you exactly want to be, why quibble? For me, I’d choose where I REALLY want to live and play and happily be a young millonaire.
The only fly in the ointment would be if another team made Bunting a much longer-term offer to move and the Maple Leafs only offered a much cheaper bridge contract. What then?
Factor Three: Implications for the Maple Leafs
I admit that I don’t believe Bunting’s relationships with officials is that big a deal. However, it might be for the Maple Leafs. As I noted earlier, I think he’s learning. If it is a deal for Toronto, the decision to re-sign Bunting becomes more complex.
One would think that Bunting has not waivered in his desire to remain in Toronto. Still, the team must weigh any potential risks associated with his recent issues. That might make a long-term contract commitment to him a problem. Despite his solid contributions, does the organization see him as a gamble it is hesitant to take?
As I noted, I don’t think it’s a deal; however, the front office must consider it differently.
Factor Four: The Future Outlook
Early in the regular season, there were rumors about a potential eight-year extension for Bunting. However, who knows if that kind of deal remains a possibility. For many reasons, the Maple Leafs might be cautious about offering a long-term conract. If that’s the case, would Bunting sign even without the long-term security he desired in Toronto?
The Bottom Line
Right now, until a contract is in place, Bunting’s future with the Maple Leafs remains uncertain. He’s certainly a solid player and he seems committed and loyal to his team. But, are his recent issues a deal or not? Do they raise doubts?
As in any free-agent signing, the player could (and probably should) test the free agency market even if he wants to stay put. Thus, Bunting might explore potential opportunities. On the other hand, the Maple Leafs will evaluate the the upsides and downsides of any player before committing to a long-term contract.
Right now, we don’t know. My guess is that Bunting will stay home. He’ll make some good money, and it will be a team-friendly deal for four seasons or so.