HBK Line

Predators’ investment in Bonino is paying off

Sometimes, when a player is on an unsustainable hot streak, it can lead to overreactions. Every now and then, though, such a run of good fortune can shine a spotlight on a good player who normally gets the job done in more subtle ways.

Nick Bonino is off to that sort of start for the Nashville Predators.

Consider that, with eight goals, Bonino is currently tied with the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Mark Stone, and T.J. Oshie. Overall, Bonino has 12 points in his first 15 games to start 2019-20.

Circling back to that opening paragraph: yes, “Bones” has been undeniably lucky. His eight goals have come on a scant 31 shots on goal, good for a whopping 25.8 shooting percentage. Even for a player who has been a pretty lucky shooter since joining the Predators (no lower than a 14.4 shooting percentage in any campaign since signing before the 2017-18 season), that luck will cool off.

Again, though, that puck luck gives us an opportunity to appreciate just how effective Bonino has been, normally when you ignore the goals and assists.

The book on the Predators has been that, for all their bargains elsewhere on the roster — and getting premium defense, goaltenders, and wingers at high value is ultimately worth it — their centers haven’t been worth what Nashville has paid for. That risk continued when they signed Matt Duchene at $8 million per year, but you could argue the same for Ryan Johansen (also $8M AAV) and most troublingly Kyle Turris ($6M AAV, gulp, through 2023-24).

Bonino and his $4.1M AAV were lumped into that argument, but I’m not so sure how fair that ever was, and he’s been delivering some great play for some time now.

Hockey Viz’s aesthetically appealing heat maps show that Bonino’s had a knack for limiting opponents’ opportunities close to his net, while doing a decent job of creating positive opportunities on the flipside offensively:

Bonino did see a slight dip in 2017-18, his first season in Nashville and away from the glories of the “HBK Line” run with the Penguins, but overall he’s been a solid offensive contributor while seemingly making a considerable impact on defense.

We might explain Bonino’s redemption going under the radar because a) most of the time he’s not scoring like he’s done through the small sample of 2019-20 and b) the mood was generally sour in Nashville toward the end of last season. (It’s amusing that, for all the grief the Predators got for putting up banners, their last Central Division win was met with such indifference.)

Consider how much value Bonino brought to the table in 2018-19 in Goals Above Replacement value, as compiled by Sean Tierney using Evolving Hockey’s data:

Pretty impressive.

The Predators have leaned heavily on Bonino basically since day one, as he’s only begun 32.6 of his shifts in the offensive zone on average in Nashville, with this season so far representing the lowest at just 25 percent.

Such deployment makes it even more likely that Bonino’s offensive numbers will slide. After all, Bonino’s only passed 20 goals once (22), which happened in 2013-14, the only season he hit 40+ points with 49. He was limited to 35 points in 2018-19 and 25 in 2017-18, just to mention his Predators years.

This hot streak gives us a chance to really bask in the under-the-radar work he’s done. If you’ve ever wanted to argue for a player who brings more to the table than meets the eye, then make no “Bones” about Bonino being one of those guys.

If you need to throw out a bunch of Boninos in the process, then so be it.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.