Nick Bonino: Second Line Center?

The first step of the “retooling” job that Jim Benning inherited with this roster involved trading away locker-room malcontent Ryan Kesler. The move was bound to clear up cap space necessary to not only keep their own RFAs like Chris Tanev and Zack Kassian around, but also dip into the free agent pool

The fact that Kesler had essentially given the Canucks a list of one and a half teams he’d waive his no-trade clause for allowed Canucks fans and media to preemptively temper their expectations on the prospective return. Then the inevitable happened. 

Ryan Kesler was traded to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa and the 24th overall pick in this year’s draft. You figure that the Bonino component of the package would be the centerpiece in the eyes of the Canucks, given that he’s currently viewed as the favourite to fill the spot the guy he was traded for successfully occupied for years prior. 

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Is Nick Bonino really a capable 2nd line center option, though? 

Bonino vs. the League

Depth down the middle wasn’t necessarily the Ducks’ strong suit last season. Beyond Ryan Getzlaf, there wasn’t much there; in fact by the looks of it they used a committee of sorts to fill in the gaps. When fully healthy they had 5 natural centers for 3 slots, which meant that somebody was being moved to the wing. That designation was given to Nick Bonino on occasion, but based 5v5 usage, Bonino was the most readily used of that aforementioned committee:

5v5 TOI/60 QoC Rel Corsi Zone Start %
Ryan Getzlaf 21.0 1.035 1.3% 48.8%

Nick Bonino

16.0 -0.055 -0.4% 50.3%
Saku Koivu 14.9 1.337 -2.4% 44.7%
Mathieu Perrault 13.7 -0.582 1.9% 53.6%
Andrew Cogliano 15.2 1.244 -5.2% 48.7%

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The Ducks were a divisive subject for the second straight season really, because their underlying numbers didn’t exactly match up with the success they were having as a team. It’s hard to quibble with the ultimate results – they came within just one game of beating the Kings and moving on to the Western Conference Final – but their unsustainable percentages are certainly a red flag.

They had a league high PDO of 103.4, in 5v5 Score Close situations, which was in large part propping up what was otherwise a largely uninspiring possession rate. Of the many Ducks forwards that benefited from this wave of favourable percentages, Bonino was sixth in forwards that played at least 40-games, with a PDO of 103. It doesn’t make his career highs last season necessarily a wash, but it is cause for concern. As is Bonino’s individual 13.8 shooting percentage.

Looking at Bonino in a bubble though isn’t overly enlightening. I can crunch his numbers (or at least try) for days on end, but without comparable players with which to gauge what a second line center is in the NHL should produce like, it will yield incomplete results.

Bonino Comp

The above chart essentially attempts to put into perspective the deployment and usage of every second line center from last season. Generally speaking, I judged which center was their respective team’s second by checking out 5v5 ice-time and tapping into my memory of lineups. Sometimes common sense needed to be applied, as players like Patrick Marleau and Kyle Palmieri (for example) were listed as centers on It’s far from a perfect methodology, but hey, it’s the best I got.

If you hadn’t noticed in the first table posted in this article that Bonino played some pretty cushy minutes, maybe this one will do the trick. And if you’re not overly well-versed in this sort of graph, the lower-right quadrant would indicate easier minutes; the top-left, the harder minutes.

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I wanted to take a look at where Bonino’s production further, in terms of sheer rate stats, ranked against some of his peers. (I used rate stats so that I might negate the ice-time discrepancies between these players).

Bonino Rate Comps

That single red diamond shaped dot in the middle of that graph is Nick Bonino. As you can see, Bonino’s point and shot production actually rank him in the top-half of my collection of second-line centers. 

What the available data makes perfectly clear is that Bonino can succeed, if put into a sheltered role, much like he did last season. It’s probably unreasonable to expect Bonino to hit 49-points again though, solely because of the low likelihood of him being able to match those same percentages once again. If he’s a 22-goal scoring forward with a shooting percentage at close to 14, what happens when that shooting percentage regresses down closer to, say, 10%?

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As sheltered as Bonino was last season, it is also worth pointing out that his QoT was actually worse than his QoC, 27.8 to 27.3. Could Bonino keep up the level of production he achieved last season with better linemates? It’s possible. My reason for this doubt is that Bonino’s two primarily linemates, Matt Beleskey and Kyle Palmieri, were actually weighed down by Bonino in the possession game.

So What is Bonino?

From what I can gather, it seems to me that Bonino is something of a tweener; too good to play on the third line, hardly good enough to anchor the second. Bonino’s best season was a 49-point campaign and was accompanied by all the good bounces a player can handle. I have a hard time believing things can go that well for him again, anywhere.

But, then again, I would be lying if I said I had seen much of Bonino. Other than the Ducks recent matchups against the Canucks, I don’t have a wealth of time spent watching Bonino play. So, I asked the twitter handle known as “Puq“, of Puq Magazine, what he thought of Bonino. He didn’t disappoint:

I’m not entirely sure whether I can call him a Kesler-lite or not, but that seems to be the case. Bonino was a peculiar case for the Ducks; he wasn’t the best second-line center, but when absent from that spot it was noticeably worse. Bonino doesn’t drive play very well, but he more than makes up for that with his versatility. He’s not going to challenge for scoring titles, but last year he proved that with opportunity and luck, he can hold his own. Bonino was slid up and down the lineup last season, but never missed a beat, no matter the linemates. I wouldn’t expect 50-points out of him, but at $1.9M, Bonino provides great value.

I can’t be the only one who finds that description eerily similar to that of the recently-departed Mike Santorelli, right? 

Another wrinkle to Bonino’s game, that gives him added value, is his ability to play both sides of special teams. Last year the Ducks had only one player with more power play goals than Nick Bonino and that was Corey Perry; Bonino had seven to Perry’s eight. To shine light on just how valuable Bonino was to the Ducks special teams, I’d like to point out that he was on the ice for nearly 50% of the team’s power play ice time and nearly a third of their short-handed ice time.

In a perfect world, the Canucks can ice a team with Nick Bonino centering their third line. But at this point they’ve got to make due with what they have, and that is looking more and more like a need for Bonino to fill the role in the lineup that Ryan Kesler left behind. Perhaps on a team that is fully committed to a rebuild – with little-to-no expectations – Bonino could hold down that role. But for a team with delusions of playoff contention, it seems like a bit of a stretch. One can only hope he proves me wrong. 

  • Bonino did play the second line centre role on a team that made the playoffs last year…

    This was a very interesting article, and actually makes me feel a bit better about Bonino playing the 2C role, especially if he has some good linemates – Burrows, Vrbata, Higgins and Kassian seem the most likely options and all are solid puck possession forwards who can likely help Bonino drive play in the right direction.

    One other thing worth considering is that Bonino just turned 26 and has only three full NHL seasons under his belt – it’s certainly possible (though I wouldn’t necessarily put money on it) that he’s still got some room to grow and improve at the NHL level.

  • Awesome article, JD.
    A simple way to look at it is to say that the 45th leading scorer among centres last year scored 47 points. The 60th scored 41 points. To produce like a second line centre, Bonino has to score at least 41 points. If his personal shooting percentage drops to around 9-10%, and he keeps the same amount of shots! that mean a decrease of 7 goals and a total of 42 points. Even with some regression, I think Bonino is a below-average second line centre.

  • Great article.

    I wonder if anyone has done the legwork on analyzing the varying performances of players (esp. centers) who have “graduated” from being shielded to playing more difficult minutes. An understandable pessimism always surrounds these cases, but I wonder what the numbers would show? It’s seems obvious that if you’re not above-average while being shielded, you will likely be below average when not. But how above-average do you need to be to expect to succeed against stronger competition?

  • Based on those linemate stats, it looks like Bonino was also better without Palmieri or Beleskey, so it’s not clear to me how you can conclude that Bonino was the one dragging the others down. I think a more logical conclusion is that all three of them are more suited to be passengers on the possession bus instead of driving the bus.

    • J.D. Burke

      Agreed. If anything Bonino fared better than his two linemates when apart. I would bet that the hidden variable here is a change in usage and QoC.

      Anaheim was fielding Bonino, Beleskey and Palmieri as their shut down second line. However when they were not together, it was because they were playing easier minutes on a line with slightly worse teammates but much lower QoC. The end result is much better possession against 3rd liners and much worse against second liners. So yes, Bonino was a tweener last year.

    • J.D. Burke

      That is true and add in the fact that Kess seemed to be playing for himself and the benefits may turn out to be better than expected.

      Is it me or do I remember Kesler going a crazy amount of games with out one assist??? Mix that with locker room complaints and he is the dictionary definition of the phrase…. Addition by Subtraction!

      • J.D. Burke

        I like Kesler a lot and I think some of the attitude-related flack he’s getting now is unfair. The same kind of crap that seems to attach to any player who makes the not-unreasonable request to leave and not want to be in the midst of a rebuild. He’s a guy who has a clear desire to win now. I don’t have anything against him or his attitude.

        I do, however, think that getting rid of him now was absolutely the best thing for the Canucks. I think you’re right that this is addition by subtraction, not because he’s a bad player or has a bad attitude but because he’s far more risky than some people seem to be thinking. As we all know his style of play leaves him open to injuries, he’s one year off an injury-plagued campaign, and his production has been on the serious decline for several seasons despite prime positioning riding shotgun with the Sedins and #1PP time. He’s a depreciating asset, one that’s going down fast. Three decent young players for him is more than frankly I thought we’d get. People who had visions of the #10 pick or Chicago’s top prospect are looking through seriously rose-colored glasses.

  • J.D. Burke

    Bonino wasn’t the “target” for Benning in a trade for Kesler, he was the best asset he could get when negotiating with one team. The point of the trade was get younger, cap room and the attitude if you don’t want to be a Canuck then we don’t need you!

    Benning is walking a tough line with the rebuild, but it is pretty brilliant!

    First, bring in a hard working coach that loves to teach and expects his players to work as hard as he does. Plus getting back to an uptempo style will help the team a lot!

    Second, have a “real” first line and PP mixing in a genuine upgrade in goal. True 1-2 goalie combo mixed with turning 26th PP top top third of the league turns the team around immediately.

    Last, bring in young guys to mix with vets. Centers, SedinBonino/Vey/Richardson or even Horvat. We may have a true number one line and 3 #3 lines, but pairing Bonino/Burrows/Higgins or Kassian/VEY/Jensen doesn’t scare me at all. Good responsible play from 2nd and potential scoring from third.

    Bottom line become a playoff team team while Vey Kassian Jensen, Corrado, Tanev Horvatlearn how to win in games that matter. I believe part if the reason the Oilers haven’t won anything with these young guns is they haven’t played any games that really matter. Putting up numbers and losing is easy. Try sacrificing numbers to win games and make the playoffs. Last year I remember a game in which Towes threw himself into his own goal to prevent a goal by the Canucks and I thought…. That’s a captain that wants to win. You learn that kinda stuff by winning.

  • J.D. Burke

    Interesting numbers, and thoughts 🙂

    I read something about Benning really liked Matthias, whick actually I do as well. Hear me out; he’s not a scorer, but he works HARD, and is fast, running both up and down the ice, so perhaps Bonino would be a good fit as a winger on the 2:nd line with Matthias as a center?

    From what I’ve understood, Bonino’s primary skill is playmaking, more than driving the bus! So he might do an excellent top 6 forward as a winger instead of a center! This also gives more room for Horvat if that want to give him a go this season, as a third line center.

    I’ve been reading the Ducks forums, and got a bit surprised… They really hated to see him go. 90% of all the posts said that they would really miss him, and they hoped they’d let someone else go in that Kesler trade, so he can’t be that bad… or!?

  • J.D. Burke

    I noticed two other things JD didn’t cover:

    1) Bonino’s shot % exploded in 2012. People said it was unsustainable to be in the high 13s and his low minutes made it seem likely that he would regress. But then he didn’t. He posted a similar-but-better shot % in the low 14s 5on5. Sure we can just say “he’s bound to regress” but the guy has posted a gain on what was already supposed to be an unsustainable shot rate, despite double the minutes and harder competition. It’s worth saying that he may not regress as significantly as most players do. He does have extremely good hands and a high quality shot.

    2) Relating to #1, he hasn’t actually played all that much hockey at the NHL level and may very well just be developing his game. This goes for both shot % and his ability to play as a 2nd line centre. He’s been making leaps and bounds in both point production, but more importantly possession, over the last 3 years despite harder competition and increased minutes. I have no idea what his ceiling is, but given his development in the NHL, I see no reason to believe he will get no better than last season.

  • J.D. Burke

    Not sure how you drew your conclusions on the WOWY’s. Bonino is actually better without Palmieri and Baleskey than they are away from him, albeit by a small margin.

    But still, Bonino’s WOWY’s overall are impressive. Smaller sample size (68 mins w/Getzlaf, 114 mins w/ Perry) but worth noting that Getzlaf and Perry also loved playing with Bonino. Both are around 56% CF when they play with Bonino. Getzlaf is 50.4% without Bonino. (Bonino at 49.3 w/out Getz), and Perry is 52.4% without Bonino. (Bonino at 48.7 w/out Perry).