The 2017 NHL free agent market is thin. The 2-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins have two pivot spaces to fill, but a shallow pool from which to fill them. The Penguins could chase talent via trade but such an endeavor could irreparably weaken their defense or cost them a key piece of their future, such as Daniel Sprong. The more immediate route, which would also preserve organizational depth is free agency. The small crop of middlemen means the Penguins don’t have many choices. In fact, the free agency market leaves them two real choices: Push to re-sign Nick Bonino or chase Brian Boyle.
Headlining the free agent centers crop is soon to be 38-year-old, Joe Thornton. Next, is the nearly discarded Sam Gagner, who scored a career-high 50 points in a breakout year for Columbus. Also at the top of the list is Martin Hanzal, a big body able to play as a second line center. Finally, 37-year-old Mike Fisher who faded down the stretch last season.
Four million is probably the starting point for all of the above, though Gagner may be the exception.
Then, its Bonino with 37 points and Boyle with 25 points.
Because it is a seller’s market, both players will command a premium. Bonino made just 1.9 million, last season and a 3.5 to 4 million dollar salary seems possible. Boyle is a wildcard. He has played only high-end fourth line minutes for the last four seasons. Will some team, such as the Penguins, make him a legitimate third line offer?
In a dream scenario, the Penguins could get lucky and snag both centermen for under seven million. Otherwise, they must sign at least one.
Boyle, 32, is not an offensive force, as much as he is a physical force. The Penguins should love the idea of signing a center who was able to manhandle the Washinton Capitals in the playoffs. In the postseason, Boyle imposed his will on the Capitals and helped set the tone for his young team.
The 6-foot-7 Boyle was traded from the Tampa Lightning to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the trade deadline. He served as a 12-minute per night 4th line center. He scored only 3 points in the final 21 games of the regular season, though he had a positive effect on most teammate’s Corsi.
When Boyle was on the ice last season, his team scored 55% of the goals. That’s no small feat considering more two-thirds of his faceoffs were in the neutral and defensive zones. Opposing players had a 5% increase in offense with Boyle on the bench.
Boyle isn’t a fast skater, but he moves well and is able to play with speedy wingers. In Toronto, Boyle was most often flanked by Kaspari Kapanen who is lightning fast and Matt Martin. Each had more shots for than against and more scoring chances (according to NaturalStatTrick.com).
Enough advanced stats. Did I mention he pummeled the Capitals in the playoffs?
Boyle wore down the Capitals and his advanced statistics were a steep incline from Game 1 to the end of the series, Game 6 (also according to NaturalStatTrick.com). He also dominated in the faceoff circle (62%).
Here is Boyle giving it back to Capitals fans after Kapanen’s Double OT winner in Game 2 of their First Round series:
2.5 million is the floor, 3.5 million is the ceiling if a team believes he can again be a third line center.
A player with a broken tibia may scare teams away until they learn Bonino suffered a broken shin while blocking a shot in the Stanley Cup Final. And, he tried to play through it. Bonino was an integral part of a consecutive Stanley Cup championships.
Such Cup glory tends to lead to big paydays.
Bonino isn’t a great skater, but he’s good enough. He’s not offensively creative but has scored big goals. He anchored the H-B-K line which carried the Penguins to their 2016 Cup win. He is a two-way center, which in hockey vernacular or the parlance of our times, means he is very good defensively.
Bonino is also a big part of the Penguins locker room. His teammates see the sacrifices. He was nearly pulled from the 2016 Cup Final with a severe fever stemming from an elbow infection. He missed the last few games of the 2017 Cup Final with a broken tibia but tried valiantly to practice and get back into the lineup.
His 37 points this season came in streaks, including 14 points in 20 games beginning March 1. The points are consistent with Bonino’s recent career norms. The scored 39 points in 2014-15 for the Vancouver Canucks and 49 points in 2013-14 for the Anaheim Ducks.
While Bonino is due a significant raise, he may also be the most affordable legitimate third line center on the market.
Other Free Agents
The second tier available centers are a bargain bin of undesirables who could get meaty contracts because of the lack of depth. The list includes 5-foot-7 David Desharnais, 36-year-old fourth liner Dominic Moore, light scoring and soft Alexander Burmistrov, and 37-year-old Mike Ribeiro who was waived mid-season by the Nashville Predators after an alcohol relapse (a total jerk store move by the Predators, but no other team stepped forward to employ Ribeiro even after he torched the AHL for 26 points in 28 games).
In other words, the Penguins will be out of options. It’s Boyle, Bonino or…uh oh.