Before the Penguins’ 2016 Stanley Cup run, Nick Bonino was largely known as a guy who seems to be thrown into big trades. In 2014, the Canucks acquired him from the Ducks in a deal for Ryan Kesler. A year later, he was moved by the Canucks to the Penguins for Brandon Sutter.
But after playing a major role on last season’s Stanley Cup winning team, posting four goals and 18 points in 24 games on the HBK line with Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel, Bonino has put himself on the map. This summer, he’ll head into free agency for the first time in his career, hoping to ride that playoff performance to a major payday.
Who is he?
It seems like Nick Bonino has been in the league since, like, 1999. But he’s actually only played four full seasons, and parts of four others that were hampered by injuries. He was drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the sixth round of the 2007, spent three seasons with Boston College, and was involved in a trade in 2009 between the Sharks and Ducks for Travis Moen.
He spent the 2010-11 season in the AHL, scoring an impressive 45 points in 50 games as a rookie, and was called up to the Ducks, but didn’t record a point in 26 games. The next two seasons Bonino bounced between the AHL and NHL, struggling to find a solidified, consistent role partially due to the Ducks roster being very deep and because of a wealth of injuries that kept him out of the lineup.
His breakout season came in 2013-14 playing on a line with Matt Beleskey and Kyle Palmieri. Bonino finished third on the team in scoring, putting up a career-high 22 goals and 27 assists. The Ducks quickly capitalized on his increased value, sending him, Luca Sbisa, and a first round pick (Jared McCann) to the Canucks for Ryan Kesler. He spent one season with the Canucks on a secondary scoring line with a revolving door of Radim Vrbata, Chris Higgins, and Alex Burrows before being shipped to the Penguins for Brandon Sutter.
From there, we know what happened. Bonino struggled to find a role on the Penguins out of the gate, getting lost on a roster loaded with talent that had a hard time meshing together. Then, the Pens fired Mike Johnston and replaced him with Mike Sullivan, and everything clicked. Bonino found himself on a line with speedy wingers Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin and the three had an incredible playoff performance, combining to score 20 goals. Beyond that, Bonino was a key player on the team’s penalty kill in the playoffs, logging the second most minutes of any forward on the team with a man down and blocking more shots than anybody else by a mile.
From a scouting perspective, Bonino is a smart and creative playmaker with excellent hockey sense and vision. His skating isn’t exactly a strength, but he makes up for it with smart decision-making and positional play. He’s pretty much the perfect depth centre to have, because he can thrive in an offensive role, feeding the puck to skilled wingers like Hagelin and Kessel, while also playing a defensively sound game.
How much is he going to cost?
Bonino is on the final year of a three-year contract that pays him $1.9 million annually. As previously noted, this summer will be the first time in his career he hits the open market as an unrestricted free agent. And from his perspective, based on the market, the timing couldn’t have worked out better for him.
The best forwards on the free agent market this summer are T.J. Oshie and Alexander Radulov, both wingers. The best centre? Unless you can convince Joe Thornton to leave San Jose, it’s either Bonino or Martin Hanzal. Because after those two, if you’re a team looking to add a middle-six centre, you’ll be picking from a group of names like Mike Fisher, David Desharnais, Brian Boyle, and Brooks Laich.
Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen a handful of players somewhat similar to Bonino sign long-term free agent contracts. By players like Bonino, I mean two-way centres who produce at a solid, but not elite level, and are somewhere between the age of 28 and 32.
Last summer, Frans Nielsen a six-year deal worth $5.25 million annually by the Detroit Red Wings after multiple solid seasons as the Islanders second centre behind John Tavares. Nielsen reached the 50-point mark in two of three years before hitting free agency and had some of the best underlying numbers on the Islanders despite playing in a defensive role.
In 2015, the Avs traded for and signed Carl Soderberg to a five-year deal worth $4.75 million annually after finally breaking into the league as a 28-year-old with a 48 and 44 point season. Artem Anisimov was traded to the Blackhawks in the Brandon Saad deal, and was subsequently inked to a five-year deal worth $4.55 million annually. Before signing the deal, Anisimov scored 27 points in 52 games and 39 points in 81 games.
So we have Bonino, who’s put up 29 points in 63 games and 33 points in 78 games with a very good playoff performance sprinkled in there too. I think, realistically, we can expect Bonino’s next deal to start at around the four-year, $4 million dollar point. If he has another massive playoff performance? That’ll go up significantly.
Can the Penguins afford it?
The Penguins currently have $60 million committed to 10 forwards, three defencemen, and two goalies heading into 2017-18. $5.75 million will be freed up when Marc-Andre Fleury is inevitably chosen by Las Vegas in the expansion draft, but the Pens have Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin, Conor Sheary as restricted free agents, and Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Matt Cullen, Ron Hainsey, Mark Streit, and Trevor Daley hitting unrestricted free agency who need to either be re-signed or replaced with the ~$18-$21 million in cap room the Pens have, depending on what the upper limit ends up at. That number is, of course, contingent of Fleury actually being selected by Vegas.
So, yeah. The Penguins have a sort of unenviable cap situation, but that’s reality when you’re a good team with an expensive core of good players. They definitely have the money to re-sign Bonino, and it makes sense to do so, considering they don’t have anybody to immediately fill his role if he leaves, and there aren’t many good options on the open market, either.
Also, if you think about it from the player’s perspective, he’s bounced around to three different teams over the past four seasons, and he’s won a Stanley Cup with the group. I don’t know the guy personally, but I bet this is the ideal situation to stick around in, if possible.
If he fits the open market…
A former Stanley Cup winning centre (who played a key role on the winning team) who can consistently put up 30 to 40 points while excelling defensively? Hell yeah. Sounds like something damn near every team in the league would love to have on their roster.
A contending team would surely like to add Bonino as a middle-six centre who can play in either a second- or third-line role, depending on the cost, while a rebuilding team could probably throw more money at him to play in an expanded offensive role.
The Ducks, Bruins, Flames, Hawks, Blue Jackets, Oilers, Wild, Rangers, Blues, Flyers, Kings, Senators, Leafs, Lighting, and Capitals have a decent amount of money committed to their top two centres already, and Bonino would likely be too pricey for a pure third-line role, unless he decided to play for one of those teams for a discount. San Jose could be in the market if they move on from Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, same goes for Nashville if they want to push Mike Fisher down the lineup. Also, Dallas, Arizona, New Jersey, and, of course, Vegas all have lots of free cap room.
It’s a good year for Nick Bonino to hit the open market. Him and Martin Hanzal are the only impact centres available via free agency, and teams are always looking for good, two-way centres. Bonino hasn’t had a great season in terms of production, but another strong playoff run under his belt would go a long way for him this spring. That said, based on how much he’s bounced around the past few years and the fact he fits so well with the Penguins, he may opt to stick around in Pittsburgh, even if its for less than he could make elsewhere.