Michael Bunting possesses an unusual amount of leverage for a 25-year-old who has an expiring contract and fewer than two dozen NHL games under his belt.
For one: He’s on a ridiculous goal-scoring tear. Two: Despite his young age, he’s set to be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Bunting just arrived on the scene in Arizona, but, in a few months, he could be heading right out the door.
How did he get to this point? It’s a long story.
Bunting has been a part of the Arizona Coyotes organization during the tenures of four general managers. Former GM Don Maloney selected him in the fourth round, 117th overall, of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.
That particular round produced a relatively large contingent of notable NHL players, including Devon Toews, Kaapo Kähkönen, and Viktor Arvidsson. The Boston Bruins selected Danton Heinen one pick ahead of Bunting; immediately after the Coyotes made their selection, the New York Rangers snagged goaltender Igor Shesterkin.
In 2020, former DobberProspects writer and current Carolina Hurricanes amateur scout Jokke Nevalainen conducted a study exploring the odds of draft picks turning into successful NHL players. He determined a typical fourth-round pick has a 22% chance of playing at least 100 games in the NHL.
Toews, Heinen, Arvidsson, Lucas Wallmark, and Christoffer Ehn have each already surpassed the 100-game threshold, with Shesterkin, Kähkönen, and Sam Lafferty looking like good bets to join them. Edmonton Oilers defenseman William Lagesson could, too. Those nine players make up exactly 30% of the 2014 fourth round.
Then, there’s Bunting, who has exploded into the NHL with the Coyotes in the second half of this season nearly seven years after being drafted by a long-gone management team.
Twelve skaters from the 2014 fourth round have suited up in the NHL. Bunting ranks eighth among that group in games played but sits behind only Arvidsson, Heinen, Wallmark, and Toews with 10 goals in his career.
Wallmark has 23 goals in 187 career games. Bunting already has 10 ... in 21 games.
Is his current production level sustainable? Well, look at it this way: Bunting is currently scoring at a 0.476 goals-per-game pace, which would slot in between those of Kent Nilsson and Syl Apps as the 36th-best mark in NHL history.
For further reference, Sidney Crosby currently ranks 40th on that list. Joe Sakic and Gordie Howe sit 47th and 48th, respectively.
Bunting began each of the past six seasons with the Coyotes’ American Hockey League affiliate, either in Springfield or Tucson (depending on the year).
Despite consistently ranking among the Tucson Roadrunners’ scoring leaders since the 2017–18 campaign, Bunting entered this season with only five games of NHL experience.
He played four games with the Coyotes in December 2018, scoring one goal before returning to Tucson. Arizona recalled Bunting again in February 2019, but he appeared in only one more NHL contest that year.
Bunting spent the entire 2019–20 season with the Roadrunners. He started 2020–21 with them, too, scoring 19 points (7 goals, 12 assists) in 16 games with Tucson before being recalled at the end of March.
Bunting made his season debut with the Coyotes on Mar. 31, scoring a goal and adding an assist. Three games later, he did this:
From there, he just kept going. Bunting scored against Vegas on Apr. 9; in Colorado, on Apr. 12; versus St. Louis, on Apr. 17; in San Jose, on Apr. 26; and, most recently, on Apr. 30, when his Coyotes stymied the Golden Knights by a 3-0 score.
Bunting ranks ninth among NHL rookies with nine goals this season. Everybody ahead of him has played at least 19 more games. 2020 first-overall pick Alexis Lafrenière ranks one spot ahead of Bunting, with 10 goals in 51 games.
However, despite still being perceived by the NHL as a rookie, Bunting is also a pending unrestricted free agent. He falls under the “Group 6 UFA” category, meaning he:
- Is at least 25 years old
- Has played at least three professional seasons
- Has less than 80 games of NHL experience
As such, Bunting’s case is relatively unique. Few comparables exist to indicate what his next contract could look like.
According to CapFriendly, only 55 players are slated to become Group 6 UFAs this off-season. Only 27 of them have played games in 2020–21, and Bunting is the only one with multiple goals. Some other notable pending Group 6 UFAs include Jonas Johansson, Clark Bishop, and Samuel Morin.
Most of those Group 6 UFAs will likely receive one-year contracts at or around the $750,000 league minimum set for the 2021–22 season. Bunting could exceed that estimate both in terms of salary and contract length.
By how much, then? To answer that question, let’s first take a look at some of Bunting’s underlying numbers to get a sense of how he can be expected to produce in the future.
Bunting is currently riding a ridiculous shooting percentage wave. He has nine goals this season on just 30 shots, good for a 30.0% conversion rate. That’s bound to regress. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to see Bunting shooting the puck with such regularity and from dangerous areas.
He ranks first on the Coyotes with 4.21 individual high-danger chances-per-60 at even strength and ninth—behind Nick Schmaltz and ahead of Christian Dvorak—with 5.78 shots-per-60. Bunting sits second on the Coyotes with 0.78 individual expected goals-per-60 at even strength.
According to Evolving-Hockey, Bunting has already accumulated a total of 5.0 expected goals above replacement (xGAR) this season. That raw figure ranks fourth on the Coyotes; when adjusted for games played, Bunting’s 1.128 xGAR-per-60 rate leads the team. (Beware smaller sample sizes).
Evolving-Hockey’s contract projections list Bunting as likely to sign a one-year deal (worth $1.123 million) to return to the Coyotes after the NHL’s free-agency period begins on July 28. Bunting will, of course, have the option to sign with any of the NHL’s other 31 franchises.
It’s basically impossible to gauge Bunting’s degree of loyalty to the Coyotes. He may choose to re-sign at a discount as a show of appreciation to the team that spent years developing him at the AHL level; conversely, after spending so long in the same organization, Bunting might want a change of scenery.
That said, how many other teams can offer Bunting a spot like this?
Bunting is still a relatively young player with potential top-six upside. Many other NHL teams would likely be interested in acquiring his services. Very few 25-year-old forwards playing big minutes become available in the UFA market.
On the other hand, Bunting’s current scoring pace is almost certainly unsustainable. With such a small NHL sample to his name, Bunting offers nearly as many question marks as he does checkmarks. His underlying numbers are strong, but he’s also playing with very skilled linemates.
If Bunting wants to return to the Coyotes, a one- or two-year deal would make the most sense for both sides. It would allow Bunting a chance to prove himself over a longer period of time and it would prevent the Coyotes from being locked into a crippling long-term deal for a potential one-season wonder.
With Alex Goligoski, Antti Raanta, Derick Brassard, Jason Demers, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Jordan Oesterle all coming off the books this summer, Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong will have some room to maneuver. Conor Garland needs a new contract—more on that later—but Bunting will likely be the second-highest priority on Armstrong’s list.
Bunting currently makes $737,500 at the NHL level and $150,000 in the AHL. Expect his next contract to be of the one-way variety—with the same salary at both levels—and worth a fair bit more.
Austin Czarnik—a Group 6 UFA in 2018—was 25 when he left the Boston Bruins to sign a two-year, one-way deal with the Calgary Flames worth $1.25 million per season. Bunting’s next deal could be a carbon copy of that one.
The Coyotes hold exclusive rights to sign Bunting to an extension until July 28, when his current deal will expire. While they can’t prevent Bunting from potentially wanting to test the market, the Coyotes would be smart to try getting him signed before that date.