By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Bruins answered a lot of questions with their 2019 trade deadline acquisition of Charlie Coyle.
Adding Coyle to the mix last year solidified the B’s need for an actual third-line center, and gave the Bruins yet another puck-possession monster whose skill-set can be utilized all over the rink. (It also allowed the Bruins to move on from Ryan Donato, who would have been part of the Summer 2019 cap fiasco, but that’s for another day.) And Coyle, the hometown kid from Weymouth, took the opportunity, ran with it, and turned his Boston success into a new six-year, $31.5 million extension.
And it’s a deal the Bruins are hoping serves as a bridge that connects the present to the future.
The elephant in the room (and for the past four years or so) is that the Bruins are not getting any younger down the middle; David Krejci has routinely fought the idea that the Bruins are on the wrong side of 30 (Krejci says that he doesn’t even know what that means), and Patrice Bergeron’s production since forming a superline with Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak would suggest that No. 37 is still a top-line center in today’s NHL. With 70 goals and 166 points over the last three seasons, Bergeron ranks 12th in points per game among NHLers with at least 150 appearances over that span (1.11).
But the question of what happened when those players slowed down or were no longer the one-two spinal cord of the Black and Gold remained an important one. And one without much of an answer.
Former top prospect Alex Khokhlachev never panned out and is back in Russia, Ryan Spooner never elevated his game beyond that of a third-line pivot with power-play capabilities and was traded in 2018 (he’s no longer in the NHL), and Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson proved to be a total flop as an NHLer and is now playing in Europe. Trent Frederic, a first-round pick in 2016, has yet to show any sort of offensive promise with the puck on his stick since turning pro. We’re just now beginning to see what Jack Studnicka, the 20-year-old many have dubbed the future of the team’s center pipeline, can do as a pro. 2019 first-round pick John Beecher, currently skating as Michigan’s top-line center, could be something, but that’s two to three years down the line. It’s a pipeline that’s had more clogs than the Bruins would like to admit.
Then there’s Coyle.
In 71 regular-season and postseason games in Boston, Coyle has scored 16 goals and totaled 36 points. Measure that out over an 82-game pace, and you’re talking about a 18-goal, 41-point center.
Coyle’s usage is important to note here, as he’s often been relegated to third-line minutes and plays on Boston’s second power-play unit, which rarely sees extended time. That will obviously limit Coyle’s offensive impact on a nightly basis, and it’s also worth mentioning that Coyle’s pre-playoff push last season saw him do just about everything but score consistently, as he was snake-bitten to hell before that postseason explosion to the tune of nine goals and 16 points in 24 games. Coyle’s been more Playoff Coyle in 2019-20, too, with 12 points at five-on-five this year, which ranks as the third-most on the team behind Marchand and Pastrnak. The numbers are great, but they’re also reassuring in the sense that the Bruins have been forced to give Coyle some run as a top-six center this year, and that No. 13 has handled those responsibilities just fine.
Given Krejci’s age and contract situation (he turns 34 and enters the final year of his contract in 2020), as well as a potential cap crunch with more restricted free agents on deck, having a potential top-six center waiting in the wings is a gigantic gain for the B’s.
With Coyle in town, the Bruins are not in a position where they have to rush a Studnicka or Beecher into a top-six role, or recklessly spend, should they find themselves unable to reach a new (read as: palatable) deal with Krejci. That’s the kind of stuff that keeps a Stanley Cup window open, if only because you’ve afforded yourself the benefit of real, flexible options.
Now, that flexibility doesn’t mean rushing Krejci out of town.
In fact, there’s a legit case to be made that Coyle’s extension helps Krejci in a major way.
It’s no secret that the Bruins have spent over half a decade looking for a right winger to plug into their top six. Basically since Jarome Iginla left town in 2014. Coyle, who has experience playing the wing and has done it this season, may be that guy if some of these aforementioned prospects pan out for the Bruins. Speaking about the team in now, Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy admitted the following: He likes what he’s seen from Coyle when paired with Krejci and he believes it’s a line that can work if need be, but he ultimately believe that the Bruins are a better team with Coyle playing center. Nevertheless, the results with Krejci and Coyle together this year have been a sight, with the Bruins outshooting opponents 25-22, but outscoring them 5-0, in almost 54 minutes of five-on-five play.
To Cassidy’s point, the Bruins are a better team when Coyle is slotted in at center, but the appeal of a top-six that gives Krejci a legitimate, big-bodied scorer to his right while also keeping Pastrnak with Bergeron and Marchand cannot be denied. Assuming a passable third-line center comes through (asking a lot), that top-six might actually make the B’s a more dangerous Cup threat.
This is all part of what makes Coyle worth every penny of the $5.25 million cap hit that begins next season.
As a center, Coyle makes the Bruins one of the deepest teams in the league down the middle. (And if that center hit the open market next year, it would not have been hard to imagine Coyle earning a contract similar to the seven-year, $50 million deal that Kevin Hayes signed with the Flyers.) As a right winger, Coyle can be the key piece that prevents the Bruins from having to mortgage their future for a rental or one-year fill-in that only further complicates the pending cap crunch many expect to come.
But most importantly, it allows the Bruins to win both now and down the road.