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Scratching the surface

by Jeff Angus / Vancouver Canucks
“Unbelievable effort by Nick Bonino. Boy, he’s got a set of hands, doesn’t he?”

Anaheim Ducks colour commentator Brian Hayward was effusive in his praise of Nick Bonino after the former Ducks center pulled off this slick move against the Los Angeles Kings last season:

When it was announced that the Canucks had traded Ryan Kesler to the Anaheim Ducks hours before the start of the 2014 NHL Draft, speculation was rampant. Who would Vancouver be receiving in exchange for the former Selke Trophy winner?

The Ducks possess a collection of blue-chip prospects, and most fans immediately went to look there. However, the centerpiece of the trade from Vancouver’s perspective didn’t end up being a prospect at all (although the argument could be made that the 24th overall draft pick was key to the trade) – it was the 26-year-old Bonino.

The former Boston University Terrier wasn’t mentioned in any of the Kesler trade rumours leading up to the deal, so many Canuck fans were left scrambling for more information. Bonino is fresh off of a very strong 2013-14 season in which he recorded 49 points in the regular season while adding four goals and four assists in 13 postseason games for the Ducks. He was also a three-year star at BU before the San Jose Sharks (arguably the top NCAA-scouting NHL franchise) selected him 173rd overall in 2007. The Sharks managed to snag another late-round NCAA gem that year too – defenseman Justin Braun was selected 201st overall out of UMass-Amherst. Bonino never played a game for the Sharks organization though, as he was traded away to Anaheim in a 2008-09 deadline day deal.

He spent parts of the next three seasons bouncing back and forth between the AHL and Anaheim before solidifying his spot with the big club in 2012-13. Bonino also recorded his first career hat trick that season, and each of the three goals highlights a different aspect of his game. The first shows his stickhandling and patience with the puck. The second shows his forechecking ability and deceptive skating, and the third (not an empty-netter) is all about instincts and going to the right spot on the ice. But enough talking about the goals, let’s take a look at them.

Bonino really came into his own this past season, earning the number two center spot in Anaheim behind Ryan Getzlaf. He is expected to fill a similar role in Vancouver behind Henrik Sedin, likely between Alex Burrows and Zack Kassian. His 49 points last year placed him 45th among all NHL centers – exactly average production from a second line center if you want to go strictly by the numbers (30 first line centers, 30 second line centers, and so on).

Outside of his solid offensive production, Bonino brings other great attributes to the table that make him a solid long-term solution down the middle.

Special Teams

Bonino was second on the Ducks last year with seven power play goals (trailing only Corey Perry). He has filled a multitude of roles on the man advantage, including playing the point – something he has done both at the college level and professionally. Bonino is an extremely heady player – he thinks the game really well, and that trait has allowed him to succeed on the point, which is a spot typically reserved for defensemen.

He played on nearly 50 percent of all Anaheim power plays last season. His 2:51 of power play ice time per game was third on the team behind Getzlaf and Perry. And among Duck forwards only Getzlaf and shutdown specialist Daniel Winnik logged more shorthanded ice time than Bonino’s 1:41 per game.

Playmaking

The role of the center in hockey has changed somewhat in recent years (more shooters and scorers), but it is typically the position that playmaking forwards gravitate towards. Centers have the puck on their stick more often than wingers and they usually have more defensive responsibilities, too. Bonino’s best attribute is his vision, and that is a skill that the 2013-14 Canucks were lacking in. Having the ability to finish plays is important, but all good teams need to have multiple players that can make their linemates better. Bonino has done just that his entire career, and the Canucks are likely expecting him to help Burrows get back on track offensively and to help Kassian continue his positive strides as a player.

A Well-Rounded Athlete

Bonino has a winner’s pedigree. He led his high school team in Connecticut to a state championship. He led Avon Old Farms to a New England Championship a year later and was named as the United States Hockey Report Prep Forward of the Year as well. He played an integral role in BU’s NCAA National Championship team as a sophomore. Bonino is also an accomplished lacrosse player, which is a sport that has helped a lot of current and former NHLers (including John Tavares and Brendan Shanahan) develop into well-rounded hockey players and athletes. It may be little surprise that Shanahan was Bonino’s favorite player growing up.

Bonino was a good enough lacrosse player to receive a full ride scholarship to attend the University of Denver, and he also participated in baseball, soccer, and wrestling during his youth. Developing diverse athletic abilities early on is important and something that many young athletes today who specialize too early are missing.

Bonino has also has a track record of rising to the occasion in big moments. While at BU he assisted on the game-tying goal (with less than 20 seconds left in the third period) that eventually led to the NCAA Championship. And he has his hands all over the Game 6 elimination of the Dallas Stars this past spring. He scored a third period goal that pulled the Ducks to within one and he won the faceoff with less than a minute left that gave Anaheim possession, culminating with a Devante Smith-Pelly game-tying tap-in with less than 30 ticks on the clock. Bonino provided the final dagger himself, eliminating the Stars with an overtime winner.

And, perhaps most importantly, Bonino wants to be in Vancouver. He wants to be a part of the change that the organization is undergoing. He couldn’t contain his excitement after the trade or after first receiving his Canucks gear. His $1.9 million per season salary cap hit (through 2016-17) is very reasonable and will give general manager Jim Benning flexibility. At 26, Bonino is no longer a prospect, but he has played essentially just one year as a full-time NHL player. The Canucks expect that last season’s 22 goals and 49 points is just a sign of things to come, and Bonino is ready to prove them right.

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