When Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet watches Michael Bunting play, he doesn’t exactly see a younger version of himself, but there are some pretty uncanny similarities. Both players hail from the Toronto east end area of Scarborough. They also played for the same minor hockey organization and were once stars for the Soo Greyhounds of the Ontario League. Tocchet was drafted 121st overall in 1983, Bunting 117th overall 31 years later. “And we’re both deadly three feet in from the net,” Tocchet joked. “Anytime we get outside 12 feet, we’re in trouble.”
Their paths to pro hockey were remarkably similar, but they got there, they could not have been more different. Tocchet played in the NHL as a 20-year-old and did not see a single game in the minors. He won a Stanley Cup along the way, played more than 1,000 games and holds the career record for Gordie Howe hat tricks with 18. Bunting, on the other hand, played his first five pro seasons in the minors with the exception of a five-game stint with the Coyotes two years ago. And when he failed to make the Coyotes roster in Season No. 6, it looked as though his future in the organization was in peril.
But now, as the Coyotes are in a spot where they’re playing meaningful games at the end of the season, they’re leaning on Bunting and he’s supplying an impressive level of offense, something that has been in short supply in Arizona in forever. And while it took a total of 330 games in the minors before he was able to string together any semblance of a run of NHL games, there is an enormous silver lining to all of it for the 25-year-old son of a Toronto garbage collector. That’s because after this season, Bunting will become an unrestricted free agent, unless of course the Coyotes manage to sign him before July 28. Bunting falls into the rare Group VI category of free agents, players who have played at least three pro seasons, but have appeared in fewer than 80 NHL games prior to turning 25.
(That threshold for goalies is 28 games, but it has been pro-rated for the past two seasons to reflect the shorter NHL seasons. That’s why Alex Nedeljkovic, who has been brilliant for the Carolina Hurricanes this season, will miss out on UFA status despite the fact he has played only 27 NHL games to this point. Instead, he’ll be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights.)
It should come as no surprise that Bunting is taking the more scenic route to the NHL. He was never an elite player growing up and, in fact, didn’t play at the AAA level until his year with the Don Mills Flyers under-18 team. Prior to that, he had played high school hockey. He has never been on a one-way deal at the NHL level, although his minimum guaranteed salary for this season was set at $200,000. After almost six full seasons in the minors and given his status as a UFA, it’s all but assured that he’ll land a one-way deal, either with the Coyotes or someone else. It will be interesting to see where this all lands. If Bunting were not signed before the expansion draft, the Seattle Kraken would be able to negotiate with him two days before free agency opens.
And in a year where the UFA crop isn’t exactly jaw-dropping – led by the likes of Taylor Hall, David Krejci and Paul Stastny – it might be worth it to a team to give a younger player such as Bunting some longer-term security in the form of a one-way deal. After being sent down to Tucson for the start of the season, Bunting got off to a great start and was recalled to the Coyotes taxi squad before being activated at the end of March, when he promptly scored a goal and an assist in his first game and a hat trick in his fourth. In the past month, Bunting has scored nine goals in 17 games for the Coyotes and showed signs he’s ready to finally make the jump.
“I think 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,’ ” Tocchet said. “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 and I remember talking to Bill (Coyotes GM Armstrong) and I said, ‘This guy deserves a chance to get up here.’ What he supplies to this team is something we’ve lacked, a guy willing to go to the net. If you look at his goals, they’re all near the front of the net. He’s a guy we sorely need in this organization.”
Whether or not he’ll stay there bears watching. In fact, re-signing with the Coyotes might be the best thing for him, a place that needs him and knows him and won’t be prone to burying his contract in the minors once he gets his one-way deal. Whether this is just a good month or a taste of things to come will also be interesting to monitor. As the Coyotes prepared for their game against the Los Angeles Kings Monday night, Tocchet said all his team’s games now are the equivalent of Game 7. The same could be said for Bunting, who has a lot on the line between now and the end of July.