DALLAS – Ask anybody about Charlie Coyle, and the same two things are uttered consistently:
1) “He can do it all,” said Florida Panthers coach Gerard Gallant, Coyle’s junior coach for half a season when he became playoff MVP while helping lead Saint John to a Quebec League championship, and 2) “He’s such a nice guy,” said Panthers rising star Jonathan Huberdeau, Coyle’s Saint John linemate.
So here’s the question: Since Coyle’s toolbox is apparently full, is it possible he’s too nice? Spend two minutes shooting the breeze with the Wild’s big multi-positional forward, it’s clear he doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder. Yet, that’s the way the Wild wants — and needs — him to play on the ice.
The Wild badly wants him to alter that off-ice personality and develop into an on-ice physical force. The team believes in him so much, it took a leap of faith by signing Coyle to a five-year, $16 million extension five weeks ago.
Gallant thinks the investment is worth it, saying: “Charlie is a good all-around player who is a big, strong guy. Not many guys come into the league like he does who’s a young player and a real good defensive shutdown guy. I think he’s going to be a 25-, 30-goal scorer in the league for sure when he gets confidence scoring goals because he can skate, he can shoot, he can do it all.
“I think he’ll be a real elite player.”
But even Gallant says you just wish Coyle had a little “more Rick Tocchet in him.” The Wild doesn’t want Coyle to drop the gloves every other night and play borderline dirty the way Tocchet did during a terrific career. But it wouldn’t mind the offensive production. It wouldn’t mind the mean streak. And it wouldn’t mind defensemen despising every time Coyle comes in their vicinity.
Think David Backes, the former Spring Lake Park star. How many times does the Wild play the St. Louis Blues where Backes clobbers Wild defensemen, gets under Wild player’s skin and frankly makes Wild fans go bonkers because, frankly, he’s so downright mean?
Backes and Coyle are both (at least listed) at 6-3, 221 pounds. The good news is it took Backes four years of pro hockey to become an impact player. When Backes topped 30 goals the first time, he was 25. Coyle is just 22.
“Charlie is a young player who’s still trying to define himself as to what kind of player he is, but he is learning that he is going to become — and he has to become — a power forward who shoots the puck, goes to the net, finishes checks and plays well both ends of the ice,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said.
“I think there have been steps. You look at the way he played last year in the second half and through the playoffs, that’s what he can be. We want him to be a physical presence. We want opponents to not have fun playing against him. He’s trending in that direction. It’s not that easy to play that kind of hockey every game, but for a team that doesn’t have a lot of big guys, it puts more emphasis on the importance of him doing it.”
Yeo noted last week’s game in Philadelphia when Coyle had an assist, two shots, drew a penalty, had six hits and “played a big boy’s game.”
Coyle has 29 hits in the past 10 games after 11 in the first 11. Asked how hard it is to change his persona on the ice, Coyle said it doesn’t matter.
“You’ve just got to be able to flip the switch. That’s something I definitely want to do,” Coyle said. “It’s something you can work on, too. Just be a big body out there and a big presence physically. Doesn’t mean always fighting or anything, but just to be a force out there and give defensemen a tough night and be hard to push around. That’s what I’m striving for.
“The big thing is I have to be consistent with it. That’s my game. When I play that way, it gives me a lot of confidence.”
The other question is whether Coyle has the ability to be a true NHL goal scorer. Peruse his career stats at any level, and he has never been that.
After eight goals in 37 games his rookie year, Coyle scored 12 goals in 70 games last year. This season, he has two in 21 games despite the third-most even-strength ice time among Wild forwards. Coyle has no goals in the past 16 games since Oct. 23. Over the past 12 games, he has only 17 shots.
Compare that to 22-year-old Nino Niederreiter, who has a team-leading 10 goals — nine in the past 14 games and 31 shots.
“He’s still deferring,” Yeo said of Coyle. “Look at the Tampa game when he passed up a pretty Grade A opportunity to shoot the puck in the slot. That’s a little bit of our whole team right now.”
Coyle actually passed up two chances. He stole the puck atop the circle and handed it to Jason Zucker. Zucker quickly gave it back and instead of shooting, Coyle passed to Thomas Vanek, who has one goal and 37 shots in 21 games. Vanek tried to force a pass back, and it was turned over.
This is part of the reason Coyle has seen limited power-play time lately. Back on the power play the past two games, Coyle has similarly passed up shots that became turnovers.
“That’s always been a [weak] area for me,” Coyle said. “Sometimes you’ve just got to be selfish and fire it. It’s not a selfish play to put it on net. I definitely need to shoot the puck more just to create chances that way instead of passing up shots.
“Like playing more hard-nosed, I have to be more consistent with it.”