Everybody’s favorite rabbit-man didn’t have a particularly hare-raising season.
No. 18: Connor Bunnaman
2020-21 League/Team(s): Lehigh Valley Phantoms (AHL), Philadelphia Flyers (NHL)
2020-21 Statistics: 1 G, 1 A, 2 P in 15 GP (AHL), 1 A, 1 P in 18 GP (NHL)
Acquired In: 2016 (drafted)
Ranking in Spring 2020 25 Under 25: 23
How did Bunnaman’s 2020-21 hockey season go? Is his stock trending up or down from where it was entering the year?
Bunnaman didn’t do anything to impress in 2020-21, particularly upon his return to the AHL. While his brief, unproductive stint in the big leagues is completely understandable given his unstable status within the lineup, inexperience, and the general difficulty of adapting to the difference in speed and skill, the subsequent nosedive in his production in the minor leagues was a bit disconcerting.
Now, this isn’t anything to be too worried about. While the Bunn-man didn’t score at an impressive clip in Lehigh Valley, his underlying numbers (as tracked by BSH’s own Brad Keffer and Maddie Campbell) were stellar, particularly when looking at his high-danger chance differential. Bunnaman limited events, drove play (+4.82% in relative CF), and ensured that his team was getting the better looks when on the attack. The lack of finishing ability isn’t ideal, but the process behind it remained the same fundamentally sound game that the 23-year-old has made his money with.
Bunnaman is an interesting case in that his stock is arguably neutral entering 2021-22. He didn’t wow anybody in the previous year, and his performance dipped from 2019-20, but in reality the expectations for him have always been those of a fourth line center, which he looked like for brief (brief!) stints during 2020-21. You might say that it’s taken a dip, but relative to what? In the eyes of most, this past year was in line with their opinions on Bunnaman: he’s a fringe NHLer who might be a decent enough depth piece or extra forward.
What are we expecting from Bunnaman this season? What should we be looking for from him?
Bunnaman’s role and expected impact in 2021-22 is largely defined as an AHL cornerstone and a potential option for the fourth line at center. While unlikely, it’s plausible that the young pivot starts hot in the AHL and takes over as the 4C in The Show should Nate Thompson/Derick Brassard end up floundering. It’s also entirely possible that he ends up playing like an AHL middle six guy and merely replicates his past model of success, rather than making the jump.
In terms of what fans should look for, pay close attention to how Bunnaman returns to play. After being sent back down, playing Lehigh Valley didn’t seem to cure any ills; Bunnaman posted some dismal stats as the year wound down and looked like he couldn’t find his footing for stretches. You could chalk it up to being jostled up and down or COVID-19, but the fact remains that he needs to get back to driving play, making sound decisions, and contributing in transition as puck support. He could also benefit from activating more as a fulcrum in the neutral zone.
How does Bunnaman fit into the Flyers’ long-term plans? Where does he stand in the Flyers’ organizational depth?
Bunnaman’s most likely outcome is as a good or great AHL player, but his ceiling (an NHL 4C) feels entirely attainable. He falls under the nebulous “bottom-six prospect” designation along with names like Noah Cates, Tanner Laczynski, Nicolas Aubé-Kubel, David Kase, and Jay O’Brien. He’ll compete for this roster spot until the Flyers no longer deem him worth keeping for that role.
What do we think Bunnaman’s ultimate NHL upside is, and how likely is it that he gets to something approaching that?
Bunnaman’s ceiling is a good fourth line center in the NHL, which isn’t a bad thing at all. At his peak, the player here is legit; he’s proven an ability to drive play, win scoring chance exchanges, and generally do all the little things that you’d look for in a 4C well, albeit in small samples. There have been flashes of a really effective possession player and 20-30 point scorer at times, and that’s exactly what his loftiest projections would posit his future as. The key for Bunnaman is going to be finding consistency. He’s been marred by being juggled around in lineups and never finding a role, but that’s partially been due to having random bad games sprinkled in with all of the good. If he proves he’s trustworthy on a night-to-night basis in a checking role, coaches will give him a chance.