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Bunting Has Too Many Pluses for Penguins to Focus on a Minus



Michael Bunting

CRANBERRY — It’s not that the Pittsburgh Penguins are disappointed, in any way, with what they’ve gotten from Michael Bunting since they acquired him from Carolina in the Jake Guentzel trade.

Quite the opposite, actually.

They wanted a guy who would go hard to the net and have no qualms about hanging around there. Who not only would venture into high-traffic, high-contact areas, but could thrive there. Who could, in the right setting, be counted on to contribute 20 or so goals over the course of a season.

Which is precisely what Bunting has delivered in his first 10 appearances with them.

“He’s the player we expected to get when we got him,” coach Mike Sullivan said after practice Wednesday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. “He’s been a good player for us on both sides of the puck.”

Bunting has three goals in 10 games — that’s actually one more than Guentzel, a gifted scorer, has in nine with the Hurricanes — and, more importantly, has consistently demonstrated the qualities that made him so appealing to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

That might help to explain why he has settled in so quickly with his new team, why Bunting says he is “getting more comfortable every single game.”

Still, while most of his personal stats are in line with expectations, one — his plus-minus rating — is not.

Bunting’s plus-minus rating in those 10 games is minus-8, matching Evgeni Malkin for the second-worst figure on the team.

That means Bunting might be one of the best examples of how plus-minus is the game’s most shallow, flawed statistic, because those numbers are presented without meaningful context.

Bunting, for example, was plus-21 with Toronto in 2022-23. Take that at face value, and the likely conclusion would be that he is nothing less than a standout defensive player.

Then look at his minus-15 in 60 games with Carolina this season, and one might think the guy would need a GPS to find his way around the defensive zone. (It also would conveniently ignore that the player with whom Bunting is tied for the worst plus-minus among the Hurricanes is Jordan Staal, who annually gets support in voting for the Selke Trophy, which goes to the league’s top defensive forward.)

Bunting noted his positive plus-minus ratings in recent seasons, and described 2023-24 as “one of those years” when every break he gets seems to be a bad one.

“When it rains, it pours,” he said. “I might not even have anything to do with the play, and I’m on the ice for a goal-against.”

Good fortune or not, without framing such as whether the player tends to be used more against other teams’ lines that are built to be effective in their own zone, as opposed to generating offense, and on which end of the ice his unit is most likely to start its shifts, the value of plus-minus ratings can range from misleading to meaningless.

In Bunting’s case, there’s an additional variable at work: Lately, he’s been playing alongside Evgeni Malkin, who is prone to improvise and to react to developing situations in unpredictable ways. That obviously can cause complications for his wingers, particularly one adapting to a new team.

Sullivan said that while Bunting’s defensive work has been satisfactory, it can improve. And that it should, as he gets more comfortable with the finer points of how the Pittsburgh Penguins do things.

“Defensively, there’s room for growth there, without a doubt,” Sullivan said. “A lot of it is just recognition skills and details. … He’s a solid two-way player who has opportunity for growth on both sides of the puck. A lot of it on the defensive side just boils down to familiarity with the scheme, so that there’s predictability amongst our group.”

Bunting’s confidence in his defensive work doesn’t appear to be shaken by his plus-minus — “I’m still a reliable player,” he said — and he seems unlikely to be distracted by a stat that’s of little real consequence.

“I just want to play my game,” he said. “I know how I am valuable to a team and I know how I can contribute.”

Even if at least one of his numbers doesn’t reflect that. Not after 10 games, anyway.