He may not be scoring at the same rate as his inaugural season in Toronto, but winger Michael Bunting is delivering value to the Maple Leafs in another way this season.
It’s not that Bunting has been unproductive – his four goals and eleven assists (15 points) have him fifth in scoring across Maple Leafs forwards and he’s done so with relatively limited power-play opportunities. Bunting shown himself a valuable complementary piece on the hip of Auston Matthews on the team’s top line, handling plenty of the dirty work. That means aggressive forechecking and backchecking, mucking it up with besieged defenders in the corners, and generally being an agent of chaos on a line that features one of the best pure goal scorers in the world.
Bunting’s style of play lends itself to taking penalties from time to time, but smart and disciplined players can play a physical and aggressive game while still carrying a favourable penalty differential. And despite what you may have read in hockey books 30 years ago, taking lots of penalties is always undesirable – the only way you end up on a penalty kill is by taking a penalty, and the odds of conceding a goal on the penalty kill is 211 per cent higher than 5-on-5 play.
Of course, the opposite is also true. Players who draw lots of penalties create hidden advantages for their respective teams, and that advantage is heightened when a team carries a dominant power-play unit. The Maple Leafs, with all of that weaponry in the forward group, remain one of the league’s more productive units when up a man. It’s part of a well-established, multi-year trend:
That brings me back to Bunting. He’s been extraordinary at drawing penalties this year. In fact, on both a volume and per 60-minute basis, he’s been the most effective player in the league at drawing penalties. His 17 drawn minors lead the league by a comfortable margin, and when you unitize it based on ice time, the results are even more pronounced:
You want to be on the top right of the scatterplot – that’s indicative of players drawing a ton of penalties without taking many themselves, creating advantageous penalty differentials for a respective team.
This season, Los Angeles forward Gabe Vilardi has created the most value for his team by way of penalties, taking just one minor in exchange for 14 penalties drawn. If a team dresses a bunch of forwards capable of those types of numbers, it is going to create a lot of hidden goals by way of added power-play minutes.
Bunting’s differential isn’t as strong, but 17 drawn penalties is significant. Think of the math for just a moment. With Toronto converting on about one in four power-play opportunities, the Maple Leafs have already added between four and five goals (on a base of 76 goals scored this season) as a proximate result of Bunting’s drawn penalties. That’s a big total early in the season, and it’s likely been a difference-maker in a couple of regular-season games already – I look back at Toronto’s 5-2 pummeling of Philadelphia on Nov. 2, a game that included a pair of power-play goals off three Bunting drawn penalties.
Not every player is born with incredible agility or a blistering shot, but the beauty of hockey is there are a lot of ways to create value for a team. Bunting is doing that for the second year in a row in Toronto.
Data via NHL.com, Hockey Reference, HockeyDB, Natural Stat Trick