There’s very little going on with the Nashville Predators right now. Pekka Rinne talked about his favorite documentary. Filip Forsberg won a gaming competition. David Poile signed a defenseman that will have little to no impact on the team in the future.

With all this free time, there’s plenty of room for analyzing the Predators roster. This includes looking ahead at David Poile’s upcoming summer (or fall?) decisions, looking back at his previous trades, and handing out 2019-20 player awards.

So let’s start looking at the Predators’ current contracts. There are some steals (Rocco Grimaldi) and some albatrosses (Kyle Turris) and everything in between.

Today we will look at Nick Bonino’s contract, which is one that initially looked very bad but is currently one of the Preds’ best.

The Preds’ initial impression of Bonino

When the Nashville Predators signed Nick Bonino in 2017, fresh off of their run to the Stanley Cup Final and losing to Bonino’s Pittsburgh Penguins, the contract surprised a lot of people. Signing a role player to a four-year contract and valuing him at $4 million per year was an odd move for David Poile, who has a penchant for finding value on the free agent market.

The questions around Bonino were numerous. He was recovering from a foot injury; would he be healthy enough to play the first year of his new contract? He was coming off back-to-back 29 and 37 point seasons; is that worth $4 million per year? He usually only performed well when paired with speed and skill around him, like Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin with the Penguins; did the Preds have similar speed and skill to pair him with?

Initial comments from Poile and Peter Laviolette indicated Nick Bonino would be the Preds’ 2nd line center. This proved a bit overconfident in Bonino’s abilities and led to Poile trading for Kyle Turris in November that season. Bonino eventually landed a typical 3rd line center role, playing mostly defensive minutes and supporting the penalty kill.

In his first full season with the Preds, Bonino put up 12 goals and 13 assists in 71 games. That ranked 13th on the team in overall point production for the 2017-18 season. Especially when compared with other similar annual cap hits on the Preds, like Viktor Arvidsson’s $4.25 million and Calle Jarnkrok’s $2 million, this was considered a very disappointing season for Bonino.

To most fans, Nick Bonino’s first impression in Nashville wasn’t ideal.

Bonino improving over time

But since then, Bonino has steadily improved. He bounced backed in 2018-19 with a 17 goal, 18 assist season, and while those aren’t eye-popping offensive numbers, they are much more in line with Bonino’s career averages. For a cash strapped team like the Preds, Bonino was finally giving the team what they expected for the money they spent.

This is in addition to taking on more ice time and increased defensive responsibilities. His time on ice per game jumped from 15:38 in 2017-18 to 16:18 in 2018-19, almost all of which was even strength ice time. His defensive zone start percentage also increased from 62% his first year to 71% his second year. Anytime a player’s role moves more towards the defensive end of the ice and his offensive production goes up, you know they are doing something right.

Through 67 games of the now-suspended 2019-20 season, Bonino equaled his output from the previous year. His 35 points ranked 6th on the team, far better than his team ranking in his first season in Nashville. In fact, for the first couple months of the season, Bonino was one of the most productive Predators’ forwards.

Here’s a look at his expected goal rate (for and against) as compared to the rest of the team’s forward group, courtesy of Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey).

Nick Bonino Nashville Predators

That’s great value for a $4 million forward, as is the production of Rocco Grimaldi and Craig Smith. The aforementioned Kyle Turris, who was presumably the replacement 2nd line center when the trade occurred in 2017, has had significantly less production and also been one of the team’s worst defensive players.

We should probably mention Nick Bonino’s shooting percentage at this point. His 17.3% mark is highest on the team among regular players and also over 5 points higher than his career average. Part of this is due to his volume of shots coming so close to the net (which result in higher chance of scoring a goal) and the other part is…well, luck. No player shoots five points better than their career average without some luck.

Bonino won’t continue to shoot at such an unsustainable rate for the rest of his time in Nashville. His puck luck will return to normal and thus his production will take a hit. But since his expected goal rates are still quite good, he will still be an effective player for the Preds moving forward.

A value as high as it’s ever been

Setting aside the inflated goal-based production and the promising shot-based production, Nick Bonino has been an extremely valuable player for the Preds over the last couple seasons. His versatility, his veteran leadership, his dependable skill set, and his positive impact in the locker room have all been on display over a tumultuous 24 months for the Preds.

This time last year, Nick Bonino was among David Poile’s most tradeable assets, given his increase in production and the need to spend some cash to improve the team after two consecutive early playoff exits. Poile instead traded P.K. Subban, found a way to land Matt Duchene, and went into 2019-20 with an improved roster.

Might David Poile view Nick Bonino the same way now? His value has never been higher and the team still has problems. Shedding about $4 million could help the Nashville Predators find some defensive help in the free agent market or maybe find more consistent offensive output.

And at this point, Poile has gotten a lot more than most initially thought he would when he signed Bonino three years ago.

— Featured image via Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports —
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