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Nick Bonino's next contract: can the Penguins afford to retain him?

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A deep dive into the next contract of Nick Bonino, and the Pittsburgh Penguins salary cap situation and limitations that will affect whether the team can keep their talented 3rd line center past the 2016-17 season.

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After scoring 18 points in 24 playoff games (tied for 3rd on the team), Nick Bonino has seen his stock rise significantly from a sluggish start to his 2015-16 season. As a member, and the center, of the famed HBK line, Bonino found success with Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel and that's not all. Bonino played the 2nd most PK minutes in the playoffs among forwards and blocked (by far) the most shots among Pens forwards with 50.

This great performance came just in time- Bonino is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2016-17 season.

Bonino and Penguins counterpart Jim Rutherford have said cursory nice things that usually get said (especially after a championship) on how the player likes the city and team and would like to stay; and how the team would like to get the player signed for the right price.

The question now becomes what is that price that works for the player, and works for the team and their salary cap situation. We'll approach both perspectives to see if there's any common ground.

Penguins team perspective

For the 2017-18 season, Pittsburgh has $50.5 million in cap hits already committed to just 12 players (9 forwards, 3 defenseman, 0 goalies). This takes the liberty to assume that Marc-Andre Fleury will be traded in advance of the impending expansion draft in June.

Here's what the Pens cap looks like, as of right now. It won't be exactly this way, since one of these players will be selected by the Las Vegas team, but you get the idea:

penscap2017929

All told, the Penguins will have a lot of salary cap space compared to most years, but also several key players to re-sign including Brian Dumoulin and Matt Murray, plus important roles to replace or bring back like Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley and Nick Bonino.

Of those last three UFA's, Bonino is the youngest and arguably makes the most sense (for him and the team) to sign another contract with Pittsburgh, thus why this piece is on him.

What we can't know is what the Penguins exact cut-off point is, or their priorities. One would think Murray will be highest, but with no clear 3rd line center waiting in the wings, Bonino figures to be up there. We don't know what the Pens walk-away point would be, or what they'd be comfortable with, but we can try to guess. Here are some comparables that make sense for the team in terms of support centers who have recently signed UFA aged deals.

boninoteamcomp17

Now, comparables can only mean so much in this situation, since if the player and his representatives don't agree, they can simply walk to the open market. And, admittedly, Bonino is a notch above a player like Brian Boyle who is better suited on the 4th line.

One consistency of all these examples remains a short-deal; all of these players are 3-4 years and that should be of premium importance to the team. Bonino will be 29 at his UFA date and there isn't a real need to sign him for 5+ years in the team's eyes.

I would think if the Pens could get Bonino to sign an exact match of the Eric Staal deal (3 years, $3.5 million, limited NTC) they would hand-deliver the contract immediately and be fanning the ink dry already.


Bonino's player perspective

For the player, one important factor to consider at this point of his career and life will be stability. Bonino bounced around playing for 3 different teams in 3 straight seasons from 2013-14 (Anaheim) to 2014-15 (Vancouver) to 2015-16 (Pittsburgh); each time being traded around from country-to-country, coast-to-coast. As evident from his cute posts on social media, Bonino now has a small child and probably would like to settle roots, instead of having the prospect of having his family uprooted at any moment. Any sort of no-trade protection, or better a no movement clause would probably be a very welcome, and possibly almost mandatory accessory for his next contract.

Money, of course, will always be a primary importance too in this business. Bonino has played the last 2 seasons, and has 1 more still to go on a team-friendly $1.9 million per year contract. Obviously, that's a lot of money, but relatively speaking that's less than league average for his peers, and this next contract will almost certainly be at the height of Bonino's earning power as a prime aged player. There will never be a better time where his services are in demand as a hockey player.

Here's some recent UFA signings that Bonino and his agents might point to as starting points to a contract for players in a similar role/skillset as Bonino.

bones2playercomp

Bonino's agent must have been one of the happiest people around after seeing Detroit give 32-year old Frans Nielsen a 6 year X $5.25 million per contract with significant NMC/NTC protection. Nielsen has been a little more productive than Bonino, but Bones does have a 49-point season under his belt and ~52 wouldn't be out of the question if HBK is successful and sticks together for this season.

The commonality of all of these contracts, unlike the shorter team comparables, are term (most 5-6 years) and also concessions with generous NMC's and NTC's for the player.

Let's faux Negotiate

Obviously in a Penguins/Bonino negotiation the team is going to have to keep the salary down in order to fit in as many of the other free agents they will have, while the player's reps will be looking to get their client a fair price for what he brings to the table.

Depending on the season Bonino has in 2016-17, leverage could be determined. If Bonino personally scores 50+ points to go with his solid two-way play and PK ability, it's going to be a gold mine for him and he might even price his way out of Pittsburgh with a $5-6 million contract for 5-6 years.

Could the Penguins afford that? Well, maybe, if they make other decisions to make the money work. Will they want to? Will they be able to? Those are the real questions.

As a neutral party like Pensburgh, with no vested interest, a good compromise would seem like the following:

Term: 4-5 years

Depends on how hard the player pushes, and how much the team wants to keep him. If Bonino has a good season, Pittsburgh might have two choices: give him a long contract, or lose him to free agency. It's obviously up to them what route to take, but considering reasonable comparable contracts- there's no reason a player in Bonino's position should sign for anything but 4+ years.

Money: $4.0 - $4.5 million per year

Is this as much as Bonino could make? Probably not, especially if he performs well this season. However, it's also a 100%+ raise on his current salary and sets his and his family's financial future up for the rest of his life. And it allows the team to have a somewhat reasonable number to keep other players.

Honestly, the money piece of the puzzle is the trickiest, since it's not difficult to foresee that either side (or even both of them) might find this range to be unsatisfactory. Pittsburgh might not have $4 million-ish dollars for Bonino, and Bonino might not want to turn down the chance to make $5+ on the open market. But, if both sides do want to continue Bonino playing for the Pens, this seems like the most reasonable possible

Conditions: Limited NTC, possible full-NMC for some years

In order to have Bonino pass up all bidders on the open market, and to offer himself and his family some security, Pittsburgh almost certainly will have to load trade protection into his contract. Whether that's a partial no movement clause for some years (like other comparable centers above) and also probably generous limited no trade clause in the other years with ~15 teams that he can block. This is almost cost of doing business now in the NHL for big contracts, and a way for the team to save some $$, with the caveat of course for the player willing to make that trade.


Will it happen??

At this point, one season out from UFA, any scenario could play out. Both Bonino and the Penguins have said they'd like for Bonino to say, but actions speak louder than words.

It certainly doesn't seem like any negotiations are pending or an agreement is impending and that's not code red right now with a lot of time left.

Right now, the ending seems far from clear, but at least now we have a better understanding of where each sides are coming from. It seems like both sides will have to make serious compromises and commitments to the other in order to get an extension done. It could be possible, however the odds don't seem the greatest at this point unless one (or both) really are willing to get a new contract done.