For the most part, Bruce Boudreau appreciates the many virtues of Wild forward Charlie Coyle. Hard worker? Great. Good teammate? Absolutely. Unselfish?
Yes, but …
“One thing he never did last year was shoot the puck,” the Wild coach said, his exaggeration hinting at his exasperation. “That’s got to change.”
Coyle’s generosity and good nature have made him plenty of friends as he begins his sixth NHL season. While Boudreau has no problem with him offering someone else the last piece of pie in the buffet line, he wants to see Coyle get a little more greedy on the ice, beginning with Thursday’s season opener in Detroit.
Whether he’s playing wing or center, Coyle’s default setting has been to pass rather than shoot. That instinct generated a career-high 38 assists last season, part of a 56-point effort that continued his steady statistical improvement.
Yet it also vexed Boudreau, who wanted to see the 6-3, 221-pound forward use his full capabilities on a more consistent basis.
Coyle is expected to start the season at right wing on a line with Eric Staal and Nino Niederreiter, where Coyle’s unique blend of muscle, size and finesse could propel him from a solid player into a star. During the preseason, he heard Boudreau’s plea, firing a team-high 20 shots — and scoring on three of those, while collecting three assists as well. His mission now is to maintain that frame of mind through an entire season, even if it goes against his instincts.
“I know I have to be more selfish,” said Coyle, 25, who had two game-winning goals in five preseason games. “It doesn’t come naturally, but it’s the right thing to do.
“You don’t get that many opportunities to shoot the puck in this league. When you do, you have to take advantage. Being selfish here is a good thing most of the time. I just have to get it into my head to put it on net, and not always look for other guys and try to make the pretty play.”
Summer of preparation
Coyle spent his summer as he always does: in his hometown of Weymouth, Mass., just up the shore from the lobster shacks and beach houses of Cape Cod. While others enjoyed the sun and sand, he sequestered himself in the gym and on the ice with specialists who work with him throughout each offseason.
Strength and conditioning coach Brian McDonough has incorporated yoga and Pilates into Coyle’s workout routine. Adam Nicholas, his skating and skills coach, has taught him how to be more elusive and create more space for himself.
Shooting savant Glen Tucker — whose NHL clientele includes John Tavares and Jarome Iginla — has tutored Coyle for two years, helping him develop a quicker release and take an accurate shot even in a tight space or odd angle.
That team has expanded Coyle’s skill set and fitness every summer. Last month, he aced Boudreau’s feared skating test on the first day of training camp, then carried his improvement through an outstanding five-game preseason.
“I’m really impressed with the player he’s turned into,” said Wild center Matt Cullen, in his second stint as Coyle’s teammate after playing with him during Coyle’s NHL debut season in 2012-13. “Not many guys have that combination of size and skill. He’s such a dangerous player, because when he gets the puck, he can beat you in so many ways.”
That’s what the Wild expected when it acquired Coyle in a draft-day trade in 2011. General Manager Chuck Fletcher was intrigued by the big-bodied player with the refined hands and nimble feet of a smaller man.
Once Coyle was in the system, he enhanced his reputation by being a conscientious and friendly teammate who always was trying to improve.
Judging strictly by his statistics, Coyle has progressed every year. His point total has risen each season, reaching a career high of 56 in 2016-17. Last season, he established career bests in game-winning goals (five) and shots (159) while breaking the franchise record for consecutive regular-season games played (313).
Yet he also has been frustratingly inconsistent, often going dormant for long periods after showing how brilliant he can be. Last season, his first under Boudreau, Coyle started out on the top line with Staal and Zach Parise; he scored a team-high 12 goals through the first 33 games, culminating in a four-point performance against the New York Rangers on Dec. 23. But after Jan. 1, his scoring and shooting fell off sharply.
Over one 10-game stretch in January, Coyle took a total of seven shots. That was part of a 37-game span in which he scored three goals, including 10 games in a row without a point. The coach could not contain his ire, demoting Coyle to the fourth line and growling, “He’s not looking to shoot, ever.”
Coyle rebounded with strong play late in the regular season and during a first-round playoff loss to St. Louis. He’s well aware of his reputation for uneven performances, something he would like to remedy.
“I’m usually pretty hard on myself,” he said. “I expect more from myself. I want to be more consistent. Things come up, but you have to find a way to stay focused and play through them.
“Everyone goes through lapses. But there are ways to diminish those, to find ways to play your game night in and night out. I can definitely do that. I’m looking forward to proving that this year.”
The goal: more shots on goal
Boudreau has an idea of how to start. His primary aim for Coyle is to get him to shoot more, using his size, speed and dexterity to create opportunities — and then actually taking them, rather than looking for a teammate.
“He needs to have that power-forward mentality, like he had during the preseason,” Boudreau said. “He’s in such tremendous shape. When he’s driving his legs and playing with a little bit of edge, he’s a really good player.”
Coyle launched 159 shots last season, a career high but still fewer than his coach wants. Several teammates said they understand the tendency to pass — including Niederreiter, who fights the same inclination — but Staal hopes a strong start will get Coyle in the habit of shooting more often.
“A lot of times, shooting is a natural instinct,” Staal said. “Some guys don’t have it as much. But when Charlie is on his game, he’s making simple plays and shooting pucks. He’s going to be important to our team, and I think he can have a big year.”
All the coaches can do, Boudreau said, is to keep reminding Coyle not to pass up a good shot. Even if he doesn’t score, he can create a chance for someone else off a rebound, and he can keep opposing defenses honest by preventing them from focusing exclusively on his linemates.
Coyle admitted it would be a waste not to shoot more this season, given all the work he put in over the summer to hone his technique. He also said the Wild’s core of players in their mid-20s — including himself, Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker — must advance beyond the “baby steps” they’ve taken over the past few seasons. Besides shooting, his personal to-do list includes winning one-on-one battles, being a reliable physical presence, improving his leadership and elevating his play whenever the situation demands it.
If he can achieve all that for his team, Coyle won’t have to feel guilty about being a little more selfish with the puck.
“We have the pieces in place to have a great team and make a run,” he said. “I know I need to be much better, to take that responsibility, to rise to the occasion. I feel like I’m ready.”