There are moments when Charlie Coyle reveals himself. Beating an opponent to the puck, holding off a defender, getting below the goal line. A forecheck, a quick shot, an overtime goal. Those are the moments that were tantalizing enough to make the Boston Bruins go out and get Coyle from the Minnesota Wild at the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline, the moments that brought Coyle home to Boston.
Those are moments the Bruins have seen more frequently this season, in the wake of Coyle’s offseason knee surgery. And they’re ones they desperately need to see, given their current void at center — and the one that could be on the horizon sooner than anyone in the organization wants, when top center Patrice Bergeron decides to retire.
“You want more responsibility,” Coyle told NHL.com Tuesday. “And I know I’m ready for that and I want that. I think everyone wants that. You want to be a big part of any team you’re on. To have more responsibility, that means more opportunity and more opportunity to showcase what you have and what you can do.
“But that’s something you have to prove. It’s something I have to prove.”
When the Wild, the team for which Coyle played his first seven seasons in the NHL, come to TD Garden to play the Bruins on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN, SNE, SNO, SNP, NHL LIVE), Coyle will be the center on the third line, a bit of an unfair demotion as coach Bruce Cassidy characterized it Wednesday, done to right the rest of the lineup.
But there’s no question Coyle is in the midst of a bounce-back season, even though his knee is not yet fully healed. He has already matched his point total from last season with 16 (eight goals, eight assists) in 29 games after scoring 16 (six goals, 10 assists) in 51 games in 2020-21.
It’s something that has been, and will continue to be, crucial for the Bruins.
The Bruins lost their No. 2 center when David Krejci left to return to the Czech Republic in the offseason. The future of Bergeron is in question, with the center set to become an unrestricted free agent after this season. Bergeron has said he will not consider signing an extension until the offseason, and even if he returns, there are only so many seasons left for the 36-year-old.
“That’s what you strive to be, when you see those guys ahead of you or above you, you want to get to that,” said Coyle, in the second season of a six-year, $31.5 million contract ($5.25 million annual-average value) he signed on Nov. 27, 2019. “You want to keep working and put in the time to improve your game to get to that point. You always want to reach for that bar that’s ahead of you. You always want to chase that.
“You can’t be complacent, and you’ve got to keep putting in the work. And that’s what I’m trying to do. Because you never know what position you are going to be put in down the road here. You want to be ready for it.”
Surgery in June, for an avulsion fracture in his left kneecap and a small tear of the patellar tendon, has put him in position to do that.
The problem started in Minnesota, when Coyle broke his leg on Oct. 12, 2017. He returned Nov. 20, but the knee “just started getting worse and worse and worse,” as he said. But Coyle didn’t know exactly what the problem was, an unknown that he played around for 2 1/2 more years before an MRI finally diagnosed the issue after the 2019-20 season.
Coyle tried an alternate approach to surgery last season, but it didn’t work. Every time he would flex his knee, every time he would push off, he would feel it. He became more and more restricted in his skating, and his results on the ice followed.
“If you’re playing, you don’t make excuses,” Coyle said. “You’re out there playing, so you’ve got to be 100 percent in your mind, but my skating was very limited last year with my knee. It’s something that’s been bothering me for a couple of years, and you don’t really trust yourself skating-wise or speed-wise or to use your leg 100 percent to your advantage, so you feel stuck all the time.”
He needed to get un-stuck.
Coyle had the procedure, and though he still doesn’t completely feel like himself, parts of his offensive game have returned.
“[There’s] more pop in his game,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “I think it’s well documented he wasn’t 100 percent [last season], trying to play through it. It wasn’t an injury that would keep him out of the lineup, but he lost a bit of his push, which makes Charlie good.”
He was left feeling helpless at times, unable to improve, to show the Bruins what he could do, to live up to the first season of that new contract.
“You’re fighting against the grain, and it just wasn’t ideal,” he said.
Which was something Cassidy saw.
“If you’re not feeling it and you’re not able to do what you usually do in terms of being able to create open ice for yourself, I think it can wear on you,” Cassidy said. “So I think both mentally and physically, it’s a refreshing thing when you can get back to being the player that you were when you had success in the NHL.”
That’s the plan for Coyle, to right himself, to right his game, to prove he can play a part in the future the Bruins will have to face sooner or later.
“I still feel like there’s more there,” Coyle said. “I want to keep feeling better about my game. We all want to contribute a little more. You never want to be satisfied.”