If Nick Bonino had any doubts about how the Vancouver Canucks really felt about him, they should have ended as soon as he saw the behind-the-scenes footage the team released of management discussing the trade that brought him to Vancouver in exchange for Selke Trophy-winning center Ryan Kesler.
Bonino, who was acquired from the Anaheim Ducks along with defenseman Luca Sbisa and the 24th pick in the 2014 NHL Draft that Vancouver used to select Jared McCann, didn't go looking for the clip. He couldn't avoid it either.
"My grandpa is 91 and he's on the Internet all the time and he's my biggest fan, so he called me up and told me about it right away," Bonino said.
In the video, general manager Jim Benning talks about Bonino potentially scoring 20 goals for the Canucks, making other players better with his passing, and mentions that new coach Willie Desjardins wants and really likes him.
Factor in the times this summer Benning pointed out Bonino outscored Kesler last year, getting 49 points for Anaheim compared to Kesler's 43 for Vancouver, and it's clear Bonino will play a pivotal role this season as the second-line center on a team that's struggled to score.
"It looked like he took the next step in his career," Benning said. "We hope he can continue on where he left off last year."
Critics of the pre-draft trade have pointed out that might not be easy for Bonino in Vancouver, at least not in terms of pure point production.
The 26-year-old center got 20 of his 49 points as part of a four-forward group on a loaded Anaheim power play that included Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. As a left shot, Bonino is less likely to get the same first-unit opportunity with Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin in Vancouver, and there are signs he will instead be used to anchor the second power play.
But there is little doubt Bonino will get a better look as the second-line center at even strength. It's an opportunity Bonino craves, even as others wonder if he's suited for it based on his usage and performance 5-on-5 with the Ducks last season.
"It's definitely a goal of mine to be a top-six forward in the League, and it's different to be called a second-line center now," Bonino said. "It comes with responsibility. You have to make good plays, be responsible, and you have to produce."
The Ducks succeeded despite uninspiring possession numbers, so assessing Bonino's ability to produce based solely on statistics from last season is complicated. He played on many lines, and with many players, including a fourth-line role in the Stanley Cup Playoffs that left many questioning Vancouver's projection of a second-line center.
"I don't know technically what line I played on," Bonino said. "I was all over."
Bonino's 5-on-5 possession numbers aren't overwhelmingly positive, including a minus-0.5 Corsi Relative rate that indicates the Ducks controlled play better when he wasn't on the ice. But those possession metrics improved significantly from the season before, and six of his eight most frequent linemates posted a higher goals-for percentage when playing with Bonino than they did without him.
The Canucks believe Bonino can continue to progress playing between Alexandre Burrows, who has traditionally been a strong possession player even without the Sedin twins, and either Zack Kassian or Chris Higgins.
"He's a skilled player," Benning said of Bonino. "I think he can play 5-on-5 and not hurt you, and from the top of the circles down he's got good hands and he's skilled."
Bonino also seems aware many are pointing to a 13.8 shooting percentage that was almost four points above the NHL average as unsustainable and another reason to expect his goals to drop from a career-high 22. But Bonino sees himself as a pass-first center (something Kesler definitely was not) and views his shooting percentage as a result of getting into advantageous positions.
"For me, if you have a high shooting percentage, you are getting to the good areas, and if that's something that I can do and keep shooting the puck then I would like to do it," Bonino said, "But I have always been a pass-first guy."
Desjardins watched Anaheim play the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference First Round while he was coaching the Stars' American Hockey League affiliate to a Calder Cup title, and liked what he saw out of Bonino.
"He's a smart player, I like that about him, and he's a skill player, I like that as well," said Desjardins, who has talked to Bonino twice this summer over the phone. "He's excited at more opportunity 5-on-5, to be counted on a little bit more and in key roles. Does his point total go up or down depending on PP time? I don't know. But I know he is a player with abilities that can help our team, and we are counting on him to come in here and make us a better team."
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Author: Kevin Woodley | NHL.com Correspondent
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