The San Jose Sharks brought free agent Nick Bonino in to solidify the third-line center role.
The 33-year-old was a smart bargain buy by the Sharks front office to try to address their festering 3C problem. Signed for just two years and $4.1 million dollars ($2.05 million AAV), Bonino was a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the 2016 and 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins and was considered an ace third-line center as recently as his 2017-20 tenure with the Nashville Predators. From 2012-21, Bonino averaged a steady 0.48 Points Per Game and had earned a reputation for being a reliable defensive pivot.
Since Joe Thornton registered a robust 0.7 Points Per Game as San Jose’s 3C in 2018-19, the Sharks’ production up the middle from that hole had dried up. In 2019-20, a 40-year-old Thornton declined to 0.44 Points Per Game. The next year, an inexperienced Dylan Gambrell managed just 0.24 Points Per Game.
In much the same way, San Jose’s offense hit the skids. In 2018-19, the Sharks were second in the league in Goals Per Game. The next year, they were 28th, and in 2020-21, they were 25th.
The San Jose Sharks’ plan appeared to be to combine Bonino and Kevin Labanc up front – the 26-year-old winger had averaged 0.55 Points Per Game from 2017-21. On the first day of training camp, head coach Bob Boughner had Bonino penciled in next to Labanc and Rudolfs Balcers.
It wasn’t a bad idea to generate some offense from the bottom of the line-up, but from the beginning, it all went wrong.
On opening night, Bonino was San Jose’s third-line center, flanked by Labanc and grinder Matt Nieto. Balcers moved up in part because of the Sharks’ already-exposed forward depth: Evander Kane was under the investigation by the NHL for a litany of issues and Alexander Barabanov struggled in camp in part because of injury.
Bonino and Labanc failed to connect from the get-go: The veteran centerman didn’t notch a point in his first 18 games and Labanc was demoted to the fourth line before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in December.
So for most of the season, Bonino skated with Nieto and Andrew Cogliano.
Per Evolving Hockey, at 2.21 Goals Per 60, they were the ninth-worst offensive trio of the 70 lines league-wide that played 200-plus minutes together at 5-on-5. Their results were even uglier defensively – their 4.66 Goals Against Per 60 made them the third-worst line in hockey.
This -2.45 Goal Differential Per 60 at 5-on-5 was dead-last among qualified lines, so there’s an argument that Cogliano-Bonino-Nieto was the worst regular line in hockey this past year.
Now granted, some underlying stats suggest that they weren’t as awful defensively as the results.
And the San Jose Sharks didn’t exactly have a plethora of much better options to line up with Bonino.
But maybe 3C isn’t in the cards for Bonino and his declining foot speed next year.
Bonino got hot at the end of the campaign, scoring eight of his 16 goals in his last 15 games, mostly on Logan Couture’s wing. While Bonino obviously isn’t going to score at a 40-goal pace over a full season at center or wing or Mars, it might be the wave of the future for the vet.
At the end of last season, the Minnesota Wild also pushed Bonino to wing. While Bonino said one of the reasons why he signed with the San Jose Sharks was because they were going to play him at center, I’m not sure that’s as much of a given next year.
Of course, Bonino has got to be around too. A source told San Jose Hockey Now that Bonino (and Nieto) were dangled at the Trade Deadline.
Bonino could potentially help any contender on their fourth line – he’s also still an ace penalty killer and faceoff man – or on a third line with the right support.
“He offers a lot as a third-line guy, maybe not always as a center, but as a winger. He’s really good at faceoffs, good at net front, and a power play net front guy. He’s a smart player, I wouldn’t discount him yet to the fourth line. He’s still a productive player.”
“If you have Matt Nieto and Nick Bonino and Cogs as your fourth line, that’s a line, and that’s a team that’s deep enough to make a good push.” (Boughner)
Bonino led the San Jose Sharks with 1.54 Stick Checks Per 20 at 5-on-5, a testament to his night-after-night defensive commitment.
He’s also the only NHL forward to surpass 100 blocked shots this season, his 102 well ahead of runner-up Anze Kopitar’s 71.
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