Some quarterbacks, like Carolina’s Cam Newton, are vocal leaders and get the team fired up. Others, like Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota, lead by example. They just come in and get the job done.
In that sense, it’s only fitting that Mariota and Nashville Predators forward Nick Bonino play in the same city.
Playing on a line with youngsters Colton Sissons and Austin Watson, Bonino is showing why he has been a treasured forward for eight NHL seasons. Despite not wearing a C or and A on his jersey, his linemates know that they’ll get nothing but the best from the 29-year-old center night in and night out.
“He leads by example,” Sissons said of Bonino. “Not the most vocal guy, not the rah-rah yelling before games. He just goes about his business and shows up to play.”
While he may be a leader to his teammates, he’s also willing to be a loyal soldier to the entire team and to the coaching staff. There’s no role that’s beneath or above Bonino. Whether it’s a hit, a faceoff, a goal or a five-on-six empty-net situation late in a game, Bonino is there at the ready to do what’s necessary to win.
That attitude was on display late in the Predators’ Game Two victory over the Colorado Avalanche. With over a minute and a half remaining and the Avalanche net empty, defenseman Tyson Barrie wound up from the top of the slot for a one-timer. Without hesitation, Bonino squared up to the puck and blocked it off his skate. That led to a Watson heave at the empty net that went just wide. Even after multiple lower-body injuries in the past year, he was still willing to put his body on the line to secure the victory.
In the team’s first-round series with the Colorado, his job is to shut down Colorado’s top line of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan Mackinnon and Mikko Rantanen. It may not be the most glamorous role or one that many would thrive in, but it’s one Bonino is more than willing to take on.
In a phrase, he’ll do whatever it takes.
“It’s something that we’re just called upon to do,” Bonino said. “Just try to do our best. They’re a tough line to handle. Just got to try to play the same way against them.”
After winning two consecutive Stanley Cup championships with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Bonino signed a four-year, $16.1 million contract with the Predators. He missed training camp while recovering from offseason surgery on a fractured tibia, then missed extended time early in the season with another lower-body injury.
The Predators, and their fans, didn’t have a chance to see their new signee play the game he was brought in to play early on. Once he did fully heal up, however, he showed that he was worth every penny.
“I’d say by January, every game for him has been a good game and an important game,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “Just with the way he plays the game, his smarts, his versatility, his experience. There’s lots of things that he’s brought to the table. The fact that he’s had some experience over the last few years in the playoffs and has been successful, that adds to our team as well.”
In the regular season, he posted a respectable 25-point campaign while playing substantial ice time. When the playoffs rolled around, Bonino hit another level and played a crucial role in getting the team out to a hot start.
The eyes and the spreadsheets can agree that he’s been an impact player so far.
“He’s a super smart player,” Watson said. “He thinks the game at a high level. He’s got, obviously, the experience with the back-to-back Cups and just knowing how to play in the playoffs and in these moments. He brings a lot of calm, but he thinks the game so well. He’s always in the right spots, he’s always making the right plays and he’s super easy to play with.”
Despite what he may say, his line is actually thriving against the Avalanche’s stars. That is evident in the difference in the Hart Trophy candidate Mackinnon’s statistics when he’s playing against Bonino and when he’s not. In Game One of this round, Mackinnon and Bonino were on the ice together for over 10 minutes at five-on-five. In that time, the Avalanche owned over 55% of the unblocked shot attempts (also known as Fenwick), according to Natural Stat Trick. But, in the six minutes Mackinnon played without squaring off with Bonino at five-on-five, the Avalanche owned 100% of the unblocked shots.
The numbers were similar in Game Two. In over nine minutes of ice time with Bonino and Mackinnon matched up, the Avalanche owned 50% of the blocked and unblocked shot attempts (also known as Corsi). In the six minutes Mackinnon was on the ice without Bonino, the Avalanche again owned 100% of the shot attempts.
Essentially, Mackinnon is muted when he’s playing against Bonino, but has the chance to thrive against other lines.
That is the kind of performance that get you noticed, and that’s another reason why the Avalanche must be happy to be on home ice and have the last line change. They’ll be able to keep their star player away from Bonino much more often.
“I think there’s some things that I look up to him for sure and things that I need to work on as well,” Sissons said. “Just such a well-balanced player. It’s hard not to look up to guys like that.”
When asked about Bonino, something that both Watson and Laviolette mentioned in their answers was playoff experience. That makes sense as he’s the only current Predator to have won the Stanley Cup. Beyond his experiences over the last two seasons, Bonino has experience across the NHL universe. He’s played on a consistent playoff contender in the Anaheim Ducks and helped the Vancouver Canucks get to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and stave off a rebuild.
Add in two titles with the Penguins, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone with more experience in all situations.
“They knew what they were getting when they signed me,” Bonino said. “I just want to be able to contribute any way I can and right now we’ve got so much depth on this team. If we’re asked to take a lot of the D-zone draws and play solid against the top line, we’ll do that. If we can contribute offensively like we did last night, that always helps.”
When the Penguins traded Brandon Sutter and a third-round pick to the Canucks for a package including Bonino in 2015, they knew what they were getting too. In the three years since, he has done nothing but win. He’s done so while scoring goals, playing tough defense and contributing in any way he can.
To paraphrase Terrell Owens, “That’s their quarterback.”