Nick Bonino could command a big payday this summer. (Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
Free agency is all about getting paid.
Actually, it’s all about getting overpaid.
Rare is the athlete who reaches free agency and takes a pay cut. All it takes to be rolling in dough is one stupid team. Two stupid teams = Powerball.
Nick Bonino hits free agency Saturday. He’s about to get overpaid.
Just not by the Penguins.
Bonino is reportedly asking for $16 million over four seasons. Too much, too long, but he’ll get it. Ten teams are reportedly pursuing Bonino.
Whoever signs Bonino will likely use him as a top-six center by way of justifying his paycheck. That’s too far up the depth chart. His acquisition will be considered a bust.
But Bonino won’t fail his new team. His new team will fail him. Even the best third-liner can have trouble being more than that. (See Staal, Jordan.)
The Penguins have given up on retaining Bonino and defenseman Trevor Daley, feeling that each has priced himself out of their range.
Defense won’t be a problem, assuming that Kris Letang is 100 percent at season’s start or not long after. That’s a risky assumption, given Letang’s injury history and his neck surgery in April.
But Letang will combine with Ian Cole, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta and Justin Schultz to give the Penguins a solid top five defensemen. (That’s figuring that restricted free agents Dumoulin and Schultz re-up, which is a safe assumption.)
The coaches love Chad Ruhwedel, so perhaps he’s the sixth defenseman to start the season. He’s right-handed. Huge plus.
Then there’s Derrick Pouliot. If it’s now or never, mark me down for “never.” Not in Pittsburgh, anyway.
Repairing center is a stickier wicket.
The top two guys are OK. No problem there.
A fourth-line center can be signed out of free agency. (This assumes a Matt Cullen retirement or defection to Minnesota. Another good bet.)
I suggest ex-Penguin Dominic Moore.
Moore, 36, is a true journeyman, having played for 10 NHL teams. He’s Cullen Lite, but with more bite. Moore is good on the penalty-kill, and won 54.6 percent of his draws with Boston last season.
Moore made $900K last year, and has never made more than $1.5 million. Moore is affordable.
Third-line center presents more of a dilemma. So much so that the Penguins must be tempted to overpay Bonino.
Pittsburgh Penguins center Nick Bonino (13) shoots the puck for a goal against Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby during the third period of Game 1 in an NHL hockey Stanley Cup second-round playoff series, Thursday, April 27, 2017, in Washington. The Penguins won 3-2. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
There isn’t much quality that fits the description: Brian Boyle, Martin Hanzal, perhaps Jordan Weal. Such players figure to be over-pursued, overpaid and then overestimated, not unlike Bonino.
GM Jim Rutherford might need to trade for a third-line center, perhaps using his surplus at wing – a surplus increased via the development of Daniel Sprong and 2016-17 NCAA scoring champion Zach Aston-Reese, both likely to spend time in the NHL this coming season.
The Penguins can fix defense later, if need be. Center can’t wait.
As Stanley Cup champions, the Penguins have plenty of strengths.
But they’ve been unmatched at center these past two Cup-winning seasons. It’s been their biggest advantage, from the first line through the fourth. That edge needs to be maintained as much as it possibly can.
Bonino may sign with Nashville, BTW. First the Predators break Bonino’s leg, now they try to take him.
Bonino’s production lagged when he came to Pittsburgh in 2016: He only got 13 points in his first 50 games as a Penguin.
But he went on a tear after, tallying 34 points in his last 37 games that season as the Penguins won the Stanley Cup and the HBK Line became forever part of Pittsburgh’s hockey lexicon.
Bonino never surged in similar fashion this past campaign, but was solid and timely. Very good on the PK. Decent on draws, better on big draws.
In the end, Bonino was a perfect fit for the Penguins.
The next Bonino is out there. Rutherford just has to figure out who it is.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).