He’s not the flashiest player on the Nashville Predators roster by any stretch, but he is arguably one of the most valuable and relied upon by the coaching staff. Nick Bonino is receiving a lot more publicity than he’s used to, due to his hot goal-scoring pace. But, don’t be confused, the former Stanley Cup champion has been valuable beyond the barrage of goals he’s recorded in this young season.
Bonino is second on the team with eight goals, just one shy of Filip Forsberg’s team-leading nine. He recorded his third career hat trick when he scored all three of the Predators’ goals against the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 29.
Statistically, this season, Bonino is averaging the best points-per-game (PPG) of his career with 0.72. However, with Nashville, points haven’t come as easily as they are right now. Last season, the native of Hartford, CT averaged 0.43 PPG, his lowest since the 2011-12 season. After 2017-18, his first season in Nashville, he averaged 0.35 PPG. Other than his first two seasons in the league, which consisted of nine and 26 games, 0.35 PPG is the worst average of his NHL career.
When general manager David Poile signed Bonino in the summer of 2017, he was expected to solidify himself as the Predators’ legit number two center. He played on the third line for the Pittsburgh Penguins and it seemed like he was one opportunity away from being a top-six player. However, that never panned out and Bonino took on a role that he was more familiar with, a role that he had thrived in while winning Cups with the Penguins, playing in the bottom-six.
Taking on that role meant that expectations for him to produce as a top-six player were unreasonable. Even though his stats haven’t been glamorous, Bonino has been cleaning up on the defensive side.
A Coach’s Best Friend
Bonino finished last season with a plus-27, tied with Mattias Ekholm for the team lead and ranked 10th in the NHL. His plus/minus in Nashville is exponentially better than anywhere else he’s played. After five seasons with the Anaheim Ducks, the former sixth-round pick had a plus-9 rating, after one season in Vancouver with the Canucks he finished with a plus-7, and two seasons in Pittsburgh concluded with a plus-8 rating. However, now in his third season with the Predators, he is a staggering plus-39, a clear reason why he is so trusted at any point during the game.
It could be that those numbers need context; maybe Bonino didn’t play the same number of minutes during his time with the Ducks, Canucks or Penguins as he does with the Predators. Well, other than his stint with the Ducks, where he averaged 14:13 TOI, he has received the same amount of ice time within a minute with every team he has laced up for.
It could be argued that he has better opportunities with the Predators, in matchups and zone starts. Well, the product of Boston University has started in the offensive zone at even strength just 32.8 percent of the time in Nashville. This season, he is starting in the offensive zone at even strength a career-low 29.3 percent. Again, this is a stat that doesn’t compare to his totals with other teams. At even strength, Bonino started in the offensive zone 51.9 percent of the time in Anaheim and 43.7 percent of the time in Pittsburgh.
Quick on the Draw
It’s understandable why he is a fixture on the ice when the puck is dropped in the defensive zone, especially considering his faceoff numbers. With the Predators, Bonino’s faceoff win percentage has never dipped below 51 percent, a success rate he never saw with the Ducks, Canucks or Penguins. His pre-Predators’ faceoff win percentage career best is 50.4 percent, set in 2015-16 in his second and final season with the Penguins. In Nashville, he has given his team a strong chance of starting the shift with possession and this season is no different, winning more than 55 percent of the draws he takes.
Bonino has always been reliable defensively for head coach Peter Laviolette, playing vital minutes when killing penalties and during the final moments of close games when the Predators are leading.
“He’s counted on for a lot of situations,” Laviolette told Paul Skrbina of The Tennessean. He also noted that Bonino is a super smart player who understands the game very well, (from ‘Nick Bonino’s goals include more than goals for Predators,’ The Tennessean, 11/09/2019).
Predators’ Penalty Killing Advantage
Since joining the Predators, the 31-year-old ranks fifth on the team in penalty killing minutes and second among forwards, behind only Colton Sissons. According to Natural Stat Trick, with the Predators, Bonino has 21 takeaways on the penalty kill, which ranks third on the team in the same time span and again is second among forwards, trailing only Ryan Johansen who has 23.
When Poile handed the two-time champion a four-year, $16.4 million deal it seemed fair. Nashville was looking for depth at center and Stanley Cup Final experience; on paper Bonino could offer that.
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However, once it was apparent that Bonino wasn’t best suited on the second line, it would have been fair to question whether he was a good addition on a bad contract. An annual average value (AAV) of $4.1 million seems steep for a third-line center and with the Predators operating so close to the salary cap, his salary leaves a very small margin for other negotiations. But, Bonino offers more than goals and he brings much more than numbers on basic stat lines.
“My goal every night is to just be a guy that my teammates and coaches can depend on, whether that’s late in the game, early in the game, special teams, trying to score, trying to get a block,” Bonino told Paul Skrbina. “I’ve tried my whole career to do that.”
The player they call “Bones” may not always find himself in the spotlight, but he provides value close to $4.1 million, and judging from recent playoff runs, it often takes these types of players and these types of deals to be successful.