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Winning formula? Acquisition of Nick Bonino as important for Wild off the ice as it will be on it

NHL: Arizona Coyotes at Nashville Predators
Dec 23, 2019; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Nashville Predators center Nick Bonino (13) shoots against Arizona Coyotes goaltender Antti Raanta (32) during the first period at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Watching Bill Guerin retool the Wild’s roster in recent weeks, two things have become clear: 1) Guerin wants to replenish the franchise with younger and faster guys who can play at the tempo that coach Dean Evason is going to want; 2) Guerin saw enough in his first season as Minnesota’s general manager to know the Wild did not have a winning formula on or off the ice when it came to the players he inherited in August 2019, upon replacing Paul Fenton, who had replaced Chuck Fletcher.

Guerin spent 18 seasons in the NHL, won Stanley Cups with the Devils and Penguins — not to mention two more as a member of Pittsburgh’s front office — and knows a winning formula when he sees it. The issue last season was that Guerin was hired just over a month before the regular season began and didn’t have time to start putting his mark on the franchise. But as he became more familiar with the players, the realization was it would take far more than tweaks to get the Wild on the right track.

Since the Wild’s season ended with a four-game loss to Vancouver in the qualifying round of the NHL’s return to play in August, Guerin has traded center Eric Staal to Buffalo for center/winger Marcus Johansson; he has told longtime captain Mikko Koivu that he would not be brought back; and has traded winger Ryan Donato and goalie Devan Dubnyk to San Jose for draft picks.

A day after selecting Marco Rossi with the ninth pick in the opening round of the NHL draft, Guerin continued to relocate members of the current roster on Wednesday by sending right winger Luke Kunin to Nashville for center Nick Bonino in a deal that also sent two draft picks to Minnesota and returned one to the Predators.

Among the trades made by Guerin — his first significant move was shipping winger Jason Zucker to Pittsburgh in February — this one is interesting in part because it exchanges a 22-year-old (Kunin) for a 32-year-old (Bonino). By jettisoning Kunin, the Wild eliminate having to give a new contract to the restricted free agent, and also don’t have to be faced with the issue of protecting or losing him next June as newcomer Seattle gets to pick players in the expansion draft.

That’s a plus.

But if Guerin really valued Kunin, this trade would not have been made. The 15th pick in the first round by Fletcher in the 2016 draft, Kunin had two goals and four points as the United States won gold at the 2017 World Junior Championships. Kunin also was captain of that team and there were some who believed he might replace Koivu as the Wild’s captain one day.

Bonino might not be the Wild’s captain next season, but he does look like a big-time locker room presence. Bonino has played 11 NHL seasons with four teams — Anaheim, Vancouver, Pittsburgh and Nashville — and won back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Penguins in 2016 and ’17. He had eight goals and 17 assists and was a plus-13 in 45 postseason games over those two years. That left a positive impression on Guerin, who was in Pittsburgh’s front office at the time.

Guerin, who served as a captain during his playing career, might not come out and say it, but Bonino is exactly what the Wild locker room has needed more of for a long time. He is a guy who is popular with his teammates, but also has an edge to his personality.

Joe Rexrode of The Athletic in Nashville wrote a piece on Bonino in August that recalled how the center played 12 minutes during Game 2 of the 2017 Cup Finals for Pittsburgh after blocking a shot from the Predators’ P.K. Subban that fractured the tibia in his left leg. Bonino could have left the game upon suffering the injury but, instead, took a numbing shot in the locker room and returned before having to leave the series. He ended up having to have surgery because of that decision, but got a moment with the Cup after the Penguins had won.

The Predators were so impressed that they signed Bonino to a four-year, $16.4 million contract that has a base salary of $2.4 million left for its final season in 2020-21. The salary-cap hit for the coming season will be $4.1 million but $1.7 million of it reportedly already has been paid by Nashville via a signing bonus. Bonino had 47 goals and 48 assists with four power-play goals and was a plus-48 in 219 games over three seasons with the Predators. He had 18 goals and 17 assists and was a plus-17 in 67 games this past season and added a goal in four games as Arizona ousted Nashville in the qualifying round. The Predators had gone out in the second round in Bonino’s first season and the first round in 2018-19.

Bonino should not be expected to take over as the Wild’s top-line center, but he had a solid season in Nashville as the third-line center and helped to elevate the game of winger Rocco Grimaldi.

Bonino will arrive with incentive to show that he’s got plenty of hockey left as he enters the last season of his contract, but the most important thing is he doesn’t sound like a guy who will need to use that as a spark. That’s the exact type of player Guerin wanted.

And if Bonino does depart after the season, Guerin’s hope will be that he left a positive mark on a room that long has been in a need of reset when it comes to the impact from its veteran players.