Let me make one thing perfectly clear.
The Penguins are not going to trade, demote, or otherwise displace Evgeni Malkin in favor of Nick Bonino.
Now that we have that out of the way, would the real Nick Bonino please stand up?
Many were excited when the Penguins traded Brandon Sutter for Bonino in the offseason. Then the former Canuck performed poorly, was injured, and performed poorly again. When Malkin went down with a long-term injury, Bonino was thrust into the second-line center role simply because he appeared to be the lesser of the evils. Surprisingly he has thrived playing alongside Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin, while the two wingers have had their best stretch of the season.
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) April 1, 2016
But exactly how much of Bonino’s success can be credited to him, and how much is he potentially being carried?
The Stats Don’t Lie
Prior to Thursday’s game against the Predators, Bonino had 4 goals and 11 points in the eleven games since Malkin’s injury. In the forty-eight games prior, he had 4 goals and 13 points.
Here are the possession numbers for Bonino and his linemates before and after Malkin went down.
Bonino: Corsi For % 49.0 Relative Corsi -2.4
Kessel: Corsi For % 53.2 Relative Corsi 1.4
Hagelin: Corsi For % 55.1 Relative Corsi 1.3
Bonino: Corsi For % 62.2 Relative Corsi 4.6
Kessel: Corsi For % 61.9 Relative Corsi 4.3
Hagelin: Corsi For % 64.1 Relative Corsi 7.3
Clearly there has been improvement while the whole team is flying high. But Kessel and Hagelin had relatively decent numbers with other centers while Bonino was below average prior to the promotion.
For an article that I’m working on. What do you think of the play of #Pens Nick Bonino?
— THW Greg Thornberry (@Greg_Thornberry) March 31, 2016
I tend to agree with the results of the Twitter poll that I ran yesterday, even with the limited number of voters. I think that as a player, Bonino can be better than how he performed in the first two-thirds of the season, but his “breakout” is also a result of playing with significantly better players.
For his career before coming to Pittsburgh, Bonino had a career CF% of 47.7 and a CF% Relative of -1.1. He didn’t have some grand epiphany on March 12, 2016 (the day after Malkin’s injury). His improvement can be credited largely to Kessel and Hagelin.
This is not to say that his wingers are not benefitting from Bonino. Clearly they are getting something in their game that they weren’t with Malkin. But when the Russian returns from injury, he needs to be right back in place between Kessel and Hagelin.
While Nick Bonino has done an excellent job centering Kessel & Hagelin, Its SCARY to think of what this line might do with a healthy Malkin
— Bob Pompeani (@KDPomp) March 28, 2016
Malkin is one of the most talented players on the planet, and his skilled wingers should continue their fantastic play, if not improve with him. Bonino should learn from his temporary promotion and continue his upswing on the third line. The addition of a more skilled Beau Bennett will help with this transition.
Making an Unfair Comparison?
Recently on Twitter I compared the current Penguins second line to an old favorite trio in Martin Straka, Robert Lang, and Alexei Kovalev. I think that I was two-thirds correct. I think that Hagelin and Kessel could easily be compared to Straka and Kovalev. But while Robert Lang was hardly a superstar, comparing him to Bonino would be doing Lang a disservice.
Ahhhh yes Kessel (notorious for hot streaks) is playing well in short sample w/Nick Bonino.
Let’s fire up those trade Malkin ideas again!
— Ryan Wilson (@GunnerStaal) March 31, 2016
The bottom line is that Bonino is a slightly above average third-line center, and an upgrade over Sutter. He has filled in admirably, but we have to be honest about what he is. Not a second-line center. Not an elite possession player. Not Evgeni Malkin.
Until next time.