Coming off a 19-goal rookie AHL season with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in 2018-19 season, Connor Bunnaman focused his 2019 offseason on improving his conditioning. He worked very hard over the summer, lowering his body fat percentage and bettering his skating stamina.
Considered a longshot to make the team at the start of new head coach Alain Vigneault's training camp, Bunnaman's work over the summer paid off in a strong performance at camp. When the team's opening night roster in Prague was set, Bunnaman was part of it. He made his NHL debut against the Chicago Blackhawks in Prague on Oct. 4, skating 11:06 of ice time and recording two shots on goal while centering the Flyers' fourth line.
Bunnaman dressed in four of the 2019-20 season's first five games. He had some struggles once the team returned from Europe, and was loaned to the Phantoms on Oct. 15.
Back with the Phantoms, Bunnaman played a strong game in a 3-2 road win over the Charlotte Checkers on Oct. 26. Unfortunately, in his very next outing, Bunnaman suffered a high ankle sprain.
The injury kept "Bunny" out of the Phantoms lineup for the duration of November before he returned on the final day of the month. Even then, however, Bunnaman was still bothered by the injury. He struggled mightily -- as did virtually the entire Phantoms forward corps -- in December.
Between Nov. 30 and Jan. 3, Bunnaman recorded only a single point (a shorthanded goal in a 3-1 road loss in Springfield) in a span of 13 games. Additionally, Bunnaman was saddled with a minus-15 rating in that span as the team as a whole struggled mightily to score goals to balance off the minuses.
By early January, Bunnaman started feeling better although he still was not at 100 percent. He started winning puck battles down low with regularity again and setting up shop right in front of the net. Those abilities are his bread-and-butter game, The payoff came as he rattled off a three-game goal streak and points (3g, 1a) in four straight games.
On January 12, the Flyers recalled Bunnaman for a second stint with the big club. He fared better this time around, seeming more comfortable and assertive than in his previous games. The fourth liner even recorded points in his first two games back in the NHL. His first NHL goal was part of the Flyers' 6-5 comeback win against Boston on Jan. 14, while his first assist came on a Joel Farabee tally late in the first period of a home 4-1 loss to Montreal three nights later
Bunnaman continued to dress regularly for Vigneault's club until the team's acquisitions of Derek Grant and Nate Thompson at the NHL trade deadline (Feb. 24). With the two veteran additions made to the Flyers roster, Bunnaman was returned to the Phantoms.
Bunnaman kept plugging at the AHL level. In his return game in Allentown, he scored a pair of goals in a 5-3 win over Charlotte. He followed it up with one assist apiece in each of the next two games; his second three-game point streak of the season.
Thompson suffered a knee sprain in the Flyers' 2-0 home loss to Boston on March 10. The team recalled Bunnaman again, and he accompanied the club to Tampa Bay for their scheduled March 12 game. The rookie was slated to be in the starting lineup, centering Michael Raffl and Nicolas Aube-Kubel.
Unfortunately, the game was not played. That same day, the National Hockey League announced that the remainder of the 2019-20 season was on pause. The AHL soon followed suit.
FIVE KEY FACTS
1) Bunnaman has dressed in 21 NHL games (1g, 1a, 2 PIM, +7) for the Flyers this season and 29 AHL games for the Phantoms (6g, 3a, 12 PIM, -21). At the NHL level, the rookie has averaged 9:14 of ice time.
2) As a rookie with Lehigh Valley last season, Bunnaman notched nine power play goals. He only potted one this season but did score the first two shorthanded goals of his pro career.
3) With the Flyers, Bunnaman was credited with 29 hits in his 21 games (8.92 per 60 minutes of ice time). Faceoffs are an area in which he'll need improvement. Bunnaman has won just 37.5 percent of the 96 draws he's taken.
4) Bunnaman's season-high 12:42 of ice time across 18 shifts came on Feb. 6 in a 5-0 home loss to the New Jersey Devils.
5) The former KItchener Rangers (OHL) captain celebrated his 22nd birthday on April 16, 2020. The Flyers originally drafted him in the fourth round (109th overall) in the 2016 NHL Draft.
Video: PHI@LAU: Bunnaman backhands puck home from knees
1. Sept. 30 @ Lausanne HC (5:25, 3rd period): It was a thrill for Bunnaman to be informed that the Flyers were talking him along to Europe for their exhibition season finale in Lausanne, Switzerland. Completing a fine camp and preseason, Bunnaman scored a backhanded goal from his knees. When the Flyers made their final cuts to the roster before opening night, both Bunnaman and Carsen Twarynski learned they'd made the NHL roster for the first game in Prague.
Video: BOS@PHI: Bunnaman scores first career goal
2) Jan. 13 vs BOS (14:46, 2nd period): Bunnaman's first NHL goal wasn't pretty, but it was huge for him and for the team. A shot from the right side boards by fellow rookie Mark Friedman went into heavy traffic around the net and caromed home off Bunnaman. The goal narrowed a 5-3 deficit to a single goal, and the the Flyers went on to earn a 6-5 shootout win.
Video: MTL@PHI: Farabee buries opening goal from the slot
3) Jan. 16 vs. MTL (18:47, 1st period): The Flyers didn't have many stumbles over the final 26 games before the NHL pause, but their home losses to Montreal and New Jersey served as reminders that they could not afford to get complacent. This Joel Farabee goal from the slot -- on which Bunnaman earned his first NHL assist by getting to the net for an initial scoring chance-- was one of the few Philadelphia highlights in the loss to the Canadiens.
THEY SAID IT
"Connor is a young player who has a strong desire to improve. He is coachable and he battles for his time. He gives us size and some pretty good skating ability in the middle. He's made some better decisions with the puck [than during his early season stint], and we like how he's played on his line."
-- Alain Vigneault, Jan. 18, 2020.
HE SAID IT
"I chip and chase. Go to the net. I'm a big body. That's kind of my role on the team. I'm just going to keep doing it....Anything I can do to help the team win. Whether it's a big check, getting it deep or blocking shots. The little things to help the team win."
-- Connor Bunnaman, Jan. 13, 2020.