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San Jose Sharks

Bonino Line Showing Signs of Breaking Out of Slump



Credit: Hockey Shots/Dean Tait

MONTREAL — It’s been a tough season for the San Jose Sharks’ third line, but they almost won last night’s tilt against the Vancouver Canucks.

The Sharks would lose their third straight, 4-3 in overtime, but that was through no fault of Nick Bonino, Luke Kunin, and Noah Gregor, who accounted for two of San Jose’s three goals. Per Natural Stat Trick, they also earned seven of the team’s 12 High-Danger chances at 5-on-5, and were on the ice from only one against.

Where’s this production been all year?

Bonino notched two assists, now up to three assists in 21 games. Gregor didn’t score, but his five shots led San Jose, a good sign that a winger best known for his speed and shot volume is getting on track after over a dozen healthy scratches this season. Kunin with two goals last night and three assists against the Ottawa Senators on Nov. 21, is starting to add some of the secondary scoring that the Sharks were counting on from him after a slow start to the season.

The question is, can this trio provide this type of play consistently? Now no one is asking Kunin to score two goals a night, but if these forwards can get to another level, frankly the level expected of them to start the season, they can give the San Jose Sharks three viable lines. That’s an essential to winning hockey that the Sharks have done without for pretty much three seasons.

Anyway, Bonino, Gregor, and Kunin all made little plays that demonstrated that they were on their game last night, even apart from the two goals that they scored.

I’m going to talk about the much-maligned Nick Bonino here, though Kunin is a huge part of this scoring chance.

Kunin (11) backchecks Andrei Kuzmenko (96) vigorously, turning him over. Bonino (13) picks up the loose change, and great vision and patience, pulls Quinn Hughes (43) to the wall, sees that Kunin has stretched out. He fires a perfect on-side bounce pass that his winger can skate into and fire at Thatcher Demko.

For a second straight season, Bonino has had a slow start to the season, no doubt. On a deeper team, his skating might relegate him to a fourth line. But there’s also no doubt that he’s still a cagy player who can do a variety of exceptional things, be it being a strong presence along the boards, penalty kill, and making plays like this one to Kunin.

So sure, Bonino started last season with zero points in his first 18 games and one assist in his first 20 games this year. But he also caught fire at the end of last season, scoring eight goals in April.

I’m not saying he’s going to break out like that soon, but simply, ice-cold and red-hot Bonino are the same player, a quality forward who does other things besides score to carve out his place in this line-up.

Should he still be the San Jose Sharks’ third-line center? Certainly, if he can keep string together performances like last night.

You love to see Gregor (73) use his speed to make the opposition uncomfortable, in this case, Kyle Burroughs (44).

I’ve liked Gregor since last year, and I still believe that he’s got solid third-line winger potential. His inability to seize a line-up spot that was handed to him from Day One – he was placed on third-line wing on the first day of camp by David Quinn, actually next to Bonino and Kunin – is concerning. But the talent, I think, is also clear for the 24-year-old.

Kunin’s first step is underrated, and you see it here as he takes advantage of an errant D-to-D pass to Hughes to force a turnover. This turnover would lead directly to the San Jose Sharks’ first goal of the game, courtesy of Matt Benning and Bonino and off Kunin’s back.

The winger would show a little more skill on his second tally of the night:

First and foremost, this is obviously an All-World pass by Erik Karlsson (65).

Full credit to Karlsson, who has turned back time in a way that maybe only Cher and Karlsson himself believed possible.

But underrated are Kunin’s hands too, that’s a pretty hard pass that not every Shark is converting on.

As an aside about Kunin, there’s much made about his team-leading 10 minor penalties. And I agree, that’s too much, and I thought his cross-checking on Elias Pettersson last night was unnecessary. He can definitely moderate.

But to the gritty winger’s credit, he’s also drawn seven minors, second on the San Jose Sharks behind Timo Meier’s 11.

Kunin can exercise a little more discipline, for sure, but let’s look at both sides of the picture. Milan Lucic, just to compare, is a league worst -8 in minor penalty differential so far this season.

Big picture for this line: Am I cheerleading too hard for one good game? Honestly, maybe. The San Jose Sharks are still 7-13-4, no end in sight for their losing streak, still undone by things that better teams can overcome. And there’s no doubt that Bonino and company are a part of that.

But as Bonino noted, and I agree, his line has been trending upward recently, they were a bright spot in their last game, the 5-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings. Per Natural Stat Trick, Bonino was on the ice for five High-Danger chances for and just one against at 5-on-5. Suffice to say, these last two games are Bonino’s best stretch in this category this season.

As Quinn and the Sharks try to talk themselves up and out of the cellar, maybe, just maybe, the third line will be something that they can hang their hats on.

We’ll see on this upcoming road trip through Canada and Buffalo. Frankly, there are some winnable games on this trip, let’s see if the Sharks can finally start to win them.

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