2018-2019 Player Reviews: Nick Bonino

Ep. 3: The One Where Bryan Tries to Set Aside His Grudge

Full disclosure: I’m not the biggest Nick Bonino fan in the world. I hate his contract and I’ll be furious if Kyle Turris is moved instead of him next season. I also think he benefited from a lot of luck this season. But I set all that aside and wanted to evaluate him fairly, so here we go.

The Report Card

The Positives

  • His shooting percentage: Bonino shot 14.4% at even strength, good for second on the team (behind Arvidsson’s 15.7%). I’ll admit, I spent most of the season waiting for him to regress to the mean and come down to earth—but it never happened. In fact, last season he shot a similar 14.1% in ten fewer games. The 3 years previous (12.0%, 6.4% and 9.7%) were up and down, but hopefully this is a trend and not an exception./

His defense (part 1): Bonino’s calling card this season was on the checking line, and the unit did a great job on defense. Bonino and Colton Sissons anchored the unit (with the addition of Austin Watson when available) and were good at shot suppression—not just in quantity, but quality. And Bonino did have a good part in that:

The number of shot attempts were below league average on defense with Bonino on the ice, especially in the high danger areas. This type of play (seemingly) is what earned Bonino four Selke votes, including a mystifying first-place vote.

Wins Above Replacement (WAR): According to Evolving Wild, Bonino last season boasted the second-highest WAR value on the team behind Ryan Ellis. And it’s been improving year over year since his final year in Pittsburgh:

He excels in this metric (click here for a full, detailed breakdown. I also go into it a bit here), largely due to his defense. WAR at even strength weighs two factors significantly more than others—on offense, it’s the adjusted goals scored rate, but on defense, the adjusted expected goals against rate is important. The idea is to look at the quality of shot a player can influence the opposing team to take, not if they actually score (something which relies on the goalie, among other factors).  

You can see that Bonino is well above average in Off_GF and Def_xG, and these two factors alone carry his overall EV GAR, which in turn translates to a high WAR level.

The Negatives

His offense: “But Bryan, you just showed me his Offensive GF rates were good!” Yes, to a degree, but his 13 goals at even strength were only a small factor in that. With Bonino on the ice, the Predators’ offense came to a screeching halt:

With Bonino on the ice, nobody—including the Preds—was getting shots off in the slot or other high-danger areas. While he did spend a lot of his time starting in the defensive zone, his linemates fared somewhat better. Also, he’s very, very streaky.

  • Shot quality: While he did have 13 goals, his total expected goal (xG) value was only 7.3—he scored almost double the amount of goals he should have (accounting for location). To me, this screams that he got lucky quite a bit. And this isn’t new: in 2017-18, he had a 7.33 xG value, below his 10 actual goals scored. Remember when I said his shooting percentage the three years prior to that were lower? In 2015-16 he had 8.2 xG but only 5 goals, and the following year posted an 11.8 xG with 11 goals. He was taking better shots, but couldn’t find the back of the net. The last two years, however, he’s shooting much lower-quality shots and they’re somehow getting past the goalie. The data seems to suggest that his shooting percentage and offense aren’t sustainable.
  • His defense (Part 2): I know I just talked about his defensive play, but something was nagging me. Watching the games, I would see some breakdowns, and if his defense gave him such a high WAR value, was he really the second most valuable player to the team?/

It’s complicated, but with some deeper digging, I found that while Bonino is still good at playing defense, the work of his teammates really helps to enhance what happens while he’s on the ice.  His fellow forward Colton Sissons posts a very similar defensive shot map:

So which of the two is really playing good defense, and who looks worse without the other?

Without Sissons, Bonino’s defensive impact was cut in half (from -12% to -6%); however, Sissons’ impact stayed the same with or without Bonino with him—the opponents remained at -12% likelihood of scoring.

But, that’s not the only thing working against Bonino. It isn’t like Sissons was bearing the defensive load alone. Both Sissons and Bonino shared the ice with one player more than any other, and that was Mattias Ekholm (have I mentioned how much I love Ekholm? If it’s been more than an hour, I apologize).

Ekholm was and still is the single best pure defensive player on the team. And it shows:

Ekholm on the ice, even without Bonino and Sissons, is playing defense better than league average; however, Bonino and Sissons regress to average without Ekholm. The three share a majority of their total ice time together, so Ekholm’s defensive impact is helping Sissons and Bonino look better than they really are.

Best Moment

My first thought when trying to conjure up a standout Nick Bonino moment, was this play in Game 3 of the playoffs vs. Dallas. The Stars had just just entered the zone and took a low-percentage shot. It was an easy block by Pekka, and it went around the boards, where Bonino picked it up and fired a saucer pass to Filip Forsberg, fresh on the ice from a change.

How this pass managed to go over 80 feet in the air, and keep Fil onside, I’ll never know.  But it was a hell of a pass.

Worst Moment(s)

The March 30th game against Columbus wasn’t good for any of the Predators (with the possible exception of Filip Forsberg), but Nick Bonino’s opening and closing minutes of the first period were very, very bad.

The first play was on the very first shot of the game. Matt Duchene attempts a pass at center ice, but the pass is blocked by Bonino (good, right?). However, Bonino can’t keep it on his stick, then lunges at the puck in a second attempt to get it, but Duchene has already blown by. Bonino drifts towards the benches, leaving a 3 on 2 in the defensive zone (Cam Atkinson, Artemi Panarin and Duchene). By the time Bonino makes his way towards the Blue Jackets attackers, Atkinson had already netted his 40th of the season on a pass from Panarin.

The second moment happened with one minute remaining (THANK YOU, PAUL) in the first period. Nashville had just failed to score on a power play (stop me if you’ve heard this before), but had possession breaking out towards the Columbus zone. A lot happens in this clip, including some fantastic work by Sergei Bobrovsky, so I’ll break Bonino’s minute down by time:

  • 0:38.4 - Bonino, following a shot on goal, finds his way into the crease and Colton Sissons threads the needle with a beautiful pass about five feet away from Bobrovsky, with nobody between them.
  • 0:37.2 - Bonino switches to his backhand. The problem? He is now about two feet behind and to the right of the net, so his shot deflects uselessly off the post.
  • 0:32.5 - Bonino manages to get the puck back behind the net despite relentless pressure, and goes to the left side. There is a defender at the post, but he takes another shot from behind the net that goes nowhere.
  • 0:18.7 - After a deflected point shot, Bonino gets muscled off the puck behind the net.
  • 0:12.4 - Columbus gets the puck. Bonino is behind everyone.
  • 0:07.3 - Bonino drifts into the neutral zone.
  • 0:04.7 - Hands on his legs, Bonino crosses into the defensive zone while Bjorkstrand, Panarin and Duchene (sound familiar?) attack.
  • 0:02.7 - Tired at the top of the circles, Bonino watches as Bjorkstrand scores./

He was pretty obviously gassed from a long shift, but so were his linemates—all of whom were back defending better than him. I do feel bad about pointing this play out, but the series of miscues was too much to overlook.

2019-2020 Outlook

A lot of signs point to Bonino continuing to play at this level next season, which, for a checking-line player, is just fine. With the addition of Matt Duchene, plus David Poile insisting Kyle Turris will also play center, Bonino will be a pretty good fourth-line center, which is right where he should be. He’s getting older, and the mistakes by the eye-test are starting to get more obvious (see above). He will have a specific role this season, and will fill it pretty perfectly, but Nashville is paying way too much for a fourth-line player. I really hope Bonino is the center moved during the season instead of Kyle Turris. Like, a lot.

It could be worse: remember, he was originally brought in to be the second line center.  *shudders*

Final Grade

C+.  If you had asked me during the season, I would’ve alternated between a D and an F.  But the numbers show he’s better than that—but not by that much more—as a deeper dive shows that he had a fair amount of luck on his side.

Fan Grade

How would you grade Nick Bonino’s season?