With the multitude of prospects the Philadelphia Flyers possess at every position, alongside finishing the 2018-19 NHL season with nine players aged 23 or below on the roster, it is easy for players to get lost in the mix; even diligent prospect watchers may overlook those who are not shining on the international stage, or lighting up their leagues.
In fact, over the last five years – thanks to a high-end scouting team and a fantastic draft record – it has almost become expected amongst the fanbase that those in the Flyers pool will excel in their league, grow as a player year on year, and within a few years have the ability to push for an NHL spot. And quite frankly that has became a reasonable expectation.
It seems like no matter what continent or draft round the Flyers pull their prospects from, they hit on them. The organization has got great value from their first-round picks like Travis Konecny, Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Nolan Patrick, their current starting goalie is a 20-year-old former second rounder, they have mid-round picks such as Oskar Lindblom and Mikhail Vorobyev contributing to the team, and the team’s top defensive prospect – Phil Myers – who has already shown he can play in the NHL, and represented Canada with aplomb at the IIHF World Championship, was not even drafted.
Yet player development is not always linear, one size does not fit all, and even if we have grown accustomed to Flyers prospects sailing through their junior leagues, college, or their European pro league, not doing so does not preclude them from still being a good prospect. Furthermore, simply because a prospect does not have high-end upside does not mean they cannot have value to the team down the line.
This is how we come to Connor Bunnaman. He falls firmly within both of the two brackets presented in the last paragraph. His upside is probably a third liner, and at times last year he was an afterthought after arguably stagnating in his draft+2 season. Yet over the final few months of the 2018-19 season the Guelph, Ontario native has made people stand up and take notice of his play, in the AHL no less.
After being drafted in the fourth round of the 2016 draft there was a quiet buzz about the big, versatile forward. In his draft+1 season for the Kitchener Rangers he potted 37 goals in 64 games, the 12th most in the league, and third most of any player taken in the 2016 draft. His quick release, strength on the boards, ability around the net, and diligent two-way play as an 18 year-old made you take notice of him. There was even talk of him being in consideration for the 2018 World Juniors as he began the 2017-18 campaign, and it seemed to everyone like the freshly appointed Kitchener captain would take his game to the next level.
That did not come to fruition, however. It would be unfair to say his game went backwards, but it certainly did not seem to be progressing. He produced 10 less goals than the year before, and his overall production fell marginally, from 0.81 PPG to 0.76. But delve a little deeper and it was not quite the “drop-off” that it seemed.
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As can be seen, Bunnaman actually produced more per game at even strength, despite actually playing – in general – further down the lineup that in the previous year. What is more, he managed to get more shots per game, usually a good indicator of development. However, his shooting percentage fell from the 22.6% in was in 2016-17, to 13.2% in 2017-18. So maybe, just maybe, his draft+2 season was not quite the disappointment many saw it as, and that a combination of a slightly reduced role, and worse “luck” contributed to the belief that it was amongst many.
Yet despite some positive underlying statistics in his final OHL season there was not much in the way of expectations for him coming into his rookie AHL year. At training camp he did not stand out, while fellow 2016 draftee Carsen Twarynski – a man who it seemed logical he would be in competition for playing time with in Lehigh Valley – made a case for a spot on the NHL opening night roster, and his start to the season was slow.
Spending almost the entirety of his first two months of pro hockey either on the fourth line, or in the press box, Bunnaman flitted between center, left wing and right wing, and over his first 13 AHL games managed just two goals and an assist. But in sport, like all walks of life, when opportunity comes you must grab it, and in early December that is just what Bunnaman did.
With fellow prospects German Rubtsov and Vorobyev getting injured in quick succession, and the teams No. 1 center Varone being called up to the Flyers, Bunnaman was moved back to center full-time, and within a week went from being arguably the No. 5 choice at center, to the No. 2 choice behind Mike Vecchione. Opportunity knocked, and Bunnaman kicked down the door to answer.
Before that venture, through 13 games which also included stints as a healthy scratch, he produced just two goals and three points, yet once he was elevated to a top-six spot down the middle on December 7, Bunnaman played 49 games to close out the season. Over that time he put up 17 goals and 29 points, good for 0.35 GPG and 0.59 PPG
Had he managed to produce at that level since the start of the season he would have finished the season fourth amongst all AHL players born in 1998 or later in goals-per-game, after fellow Phantom Rubtsov (0.43) and two other top 60 picks in Dillon Dube (0.41) and Sam Steel (0.38), and nineteenth in points-per-game. As it was his 19 goals managed to take fourth place in the AHL for players his age and younger.
And towards the end of the season he also had to deal with reduced ice-time and opportunity – relative to the stretch of December to mid-February – due to the acquisition of veteran Byron Froese in mid-February, and then Cole Bardreau returning from injury in early March.
In the 23 games from December 7 until Froese was acquired the man from Guelph posted 12 goals and 18 points, ridiculous numbers for a player his age.
Now, before we all get too excited it should be stated that Bunnaman does a lot of his damage on the power play. He truly is a terror on the man-up at the AHL level, with his release, size, and hands in close being difficult for defensemen to deal with. As a result almost half of his goals, nine out of 19, came there. At the NHL level it is doubtful he would be afforded much time at man-up.
Furthermore, there are legitimate concerns that at the next level his game may not be suited to center. While he is solid defensively, and a big body, his best work does not come as a facilitator, and he is not as comfortable as the average center being the focal point of an attack at 5v5, where the play revolves around the man at center ice. Instead, his best work is done in the offensive zone in the gritty areas, the places that most power-wingers frequent.
But every prospect has their warts, no matter how big or small, and instead we should look to the positives.
Over the last few months Connor Bunnaman has certainly re-established himself as a legitimate NHL prospect, who may not be too far away from playing at the highest level. Yes, he may not have top-six upside, and he may move to wing going forward, but each and every contender in the modern NHL has relied on homegrown depth forwards to contribute to their bottom sixes. Case in point, every cup winner since the 2012 Kings has populated at least half of their bottom six with players aged 23 and below, who were developed internally.
The Flyers may have a myriad of young forward talent, but players like Bunnaman are key to team depth, and in turn the ability to challenge for a Cup, going forward.
He may have surprised many with his play over the final half of the AHL season., but it would be no surprise if in the near future the versatile forward was an important part of a young, talented bottom six for the Flyers.
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