The transition looked seamless from the very first shift.
Wild forward Charlie Coyle was decisive on the puck, marshaling the attack as a center is supposed to, and his assertiveness was at its peak when he cut to the middle during a shorthanded rush. He sent a rising backhander over Montreal goalie Antti Niemi, one of the flashier goals during a 7-1 drubbing of the Canadiens on Tuesday that sprinkled the start of a four-game homestand for the Wild with optimism after a grim few weeks.
“Charlie was really good in the middle controlling the puck, making plays at the blue line with speed,” linemate Zach Parise said.
Coyle was given this opportunity to switch to center from wing because of a lower-body injury to captain Mikko Koivu. After thriving during his first run-through, he underscored his value to the team because he can rove between positions so smoothly.
But his flexibility could also be what curbs his potential because Coyle believes sticking in one spot is key for him to be a reliable contributor — a point he can emphasize while skating as a stand-in for Koivu.
“I take a lot of pride in that [versatility],” Coyle said. “I always have, and every team needs that. But, yeah, I want to be a more consistent player and to be more consistent, you need to be in a consistent place. It’s that simple, and I’ve never really had that for a long period of time. If that’s what’s going to help our team win, that’s what I’m going to do. But I feel like I can be really consistent and a bigger force if I get the chance to do that.”
This window to make a case to remain in one position may not be open for much longer.
Koivu, who’s considered day-to-day after absorbing a knee-on-knee hit last Thursday, skated Wednesday and could be close to rejoining practice and maybe even playing.
“He felt a lot better,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I don’t know the time frame at this stage or anything, but he skated. He did good. It’s a step in the right direction.”
Until Koivu returns, though, Coyle is planning on using the ice time to show the upsides of keeping him in a set role — particularly in the top-six, since above all that’s where he wants to be; whether it’s at center or on the wing doesn’t matter to him.
“[I] need to take advantage of it now,” he said.
Man in the middle
Based on his showing Tuesday, center seems to suit Coyle.
It’s a responsibility that engages his speed and at 6-3 and 220 pounds, a mobile Coyle is difficult to corral.
When everybody’s available, though, Boudreau acknowledged it’s a “tough call” to keep Coyle as a pivot. Koivu and Eric Staal have the top-two slots locked down, and the team wants Joel Eriksson Ek up the middle, too. Eric Fehr could move to the wing, but the fourth line doesn’t appear a fit for Coyle.
Even cracking the top-six at wing can be a challenge — what with Parise and Jason Zucker on the left side and Mikael Granlund on the right, typically leaving that final opening for either Coyle or Nino Niederreiter. The other then usually slides down the lineup.
“It’s both a blessing and a sin to be versatile,” Coyle said.
His goal Tuesday was his fifth, bumping his point total up to 15, and while Coyle called his play “decent” this season, he’s certainly striving to be more productive.
“You’re never as far off as you think,” he explained. “I’ve never been a guy who’s been complacent. You always want more. You’re hard on yourself, and you always want more. You just need to work for those opportunities, put yourself in those positions where you deserve more ice time or you deserve more top-six — whatever it is. You always want to push for that, push your teammates, and that’s what I’m doing.”
The rumor mill
And when he does make an impact, Coyle doesn’t just showcase how he can boost the Wild; he seems to appeal to the rest of the league, as his name has been a mainstay in trade rumors for years, a trend that hasn’t faded with a new general manager in Paul Fenton.
“It doesn’t matter what way you look at it,” he said. “You can be like, ‘Oh, this guy isn’t playing well at all. He’s on the trading block.’ And then all of a sudden, ‘Oh, this guy’s playing pretty good. A bunch of teams want him. He’s on the trading block.’ ”
Coyle’s immune to the chatter, tuning it out unless it’s brought up to him, and he credits his versatility for helping fuel the speculation.
“I’ve heard I’ve been traded since my first year here,” said Coyle, who’s in the second-to-last season of a five-year, $16 million contract. “I’ve always been in those talks. I’m going to be, whether they’re true or not. It hasn’t been true once.”
That’s the way Coyle would like to keep it.
Whenever he’s on the ice, wherever that is, he’s eager to stoke success for the group.
“I love it here,” Coyle said. “I think we got a good team. I just want to be a big part of that and make sure I do what I can to help.”