Every great team needs influencers who don’t wear a “C” or an “A” stitched on their game sweaters, and the Boston Bruins’ leader without a letter is Charlie Coyle.
“I would say so, yeah,” agreed Trent Frederic after skating on Coyle’s line and putting up a goal and an assist during Thursday night’s 5-2 victory over the pesky New York Islanders.
Coyle won’t turn 32 until March 2, 2024, but he’s already had an enormous influence on a fellow, late-first-round draft pick finding his way into a regular, top-nine role at age 25.
“He’s always a very positive guy,” said Frederic, who was chosen 29th overall in the 2016 NHL Draft; Coyle was chosen 28th overall by San Jose in 2010. “He always comes to what I call work. He’s very professional, and he’s just a really good guy. He’s been really good to me, and he’s helped me get to where I am today.”
Charlie Coyle was only an 18-year-old Weymouth (Mass.) High School senior playing junior hockey in Foxboro when he spoke about emulating Boston Bruins great Patrice Bergeron’s enviable, 200-foot game. He was only 12 when he met a 19-year-old Bergeron, who was playing a preseason game for the Providence Bruins at the Bridgewater Ice Arena during the NHL’s dark winter of 2004-05.
A Thayer Academy star at 16, Coyle would hone his own version of that craft with the South Shore Kings, most of two seasons at Boston University followed by a stint in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with Saint John (New Brunswick), two World Junior Championships, and the first half of the 2012-13 season at AHL Houston before joining the Minnesota Wild when the NHL came back from its last lockout.
Coyle never played a game for the Sharks, who traded him to Minnesota in a package deal for star defenseman Brent Burns. After establishing his NHL career with the Wild, Coyle returned to his hometown in a Feb. 20, 2019, swap for forward Ryan Donato and a conditional pick.
He was Boston Bruins GM Don Sweeney’s choice to take some of the heavy lifting (read: defensive-zone faceoffs, physical matchups, and penalty kill) off the plates of Bergeron and David Krejci, but Coyle exceeded expectations with 9-7-16 totals in 24 playoff games that spring as his new team went to the Stanley Cup final.
Because he can play right wing, Coyle was especially attractive from a hockey-widget standpoint. Similarly, a few years before, Sweeney had acquired David Backes with the same center-wing support role in mind. On the night of the Coyle acquisition, Backes would beat Marc-Andre Fleury to end a shootout in San Jose, but the writing was on the wall.
With much in common except the eight years separating their hockey generations, Backes and Coyle were two tall ships passing in the night. Coyle would make a major impact in Boston’s 2019 playoff run, while Backes was scratched from the Bruins’ Game 7 lineup against his old team. Proud but steadfastly classy amidst that disappointment, Backes moved on to play two more years with rebuilding Anaheim and retired on his own terms.
As Bergeron and Krejci advanced in years while centering Boston’s top two forward lines, Coyle emerged as captain of the bottom six, a mainstay in his role. Upon their Summer 2023 retirements and with Pavel Zacha’s always-planned slide from wing to center, the Boston Bruins entered their centennial campaign as a team in transition.
It was only appropriate for Coach Jim Montgomery to start Coyle in the top six alongside Brad Marchand, but the ascent of 19-year-old Matt Poitras has allowed the Boston Bruins to experiment.
“Wherever we’re slotted, it’s not going to change the way I’m going to lead or what I do,” said Coyle. “You learn from the guys before you and the guys with you now, and it’s a good locker room to do that in. You learn a lot just by being here for four years, so you just keep trying to build on that. It doesn’t matter where I am in the lineup, I’m just going to do the best I can and the way I know how and keep working at it every day.”
It bodes very well for the Boston Bruins that Coyle enjoyed his breakout game (3-1-4 vs. NYI) centering the third line of Frederic (1-1-2) and James van Riemsdyk (0-2-2). Coyle’s first goal Thursday was his 400th career point, and van Riemsdyk’s first assist was his 600th career point.
This suddenly successful partnership looks like it should be left alone for the rest of the season, but Coyle knows that’s not how it works.
“No team goes through a clean slate. Those tough times, they’re going to come. The way we go through them, the way we learn from them, it’s only going to help us come playoff time when we’re in the trenches,” he said. “We’re ready for it, and whatever happens – and stuff is going to happen – we’ll adjust and we’ll get through it together.”
Thursday night they had themselves a game, but that game will dissolve amidst many other feel-good moments for the hard-working, reconstituted Bruins. What won’t dissolve is Coyle’s abiding resolve to approach every game like it’s his last.
“Everyone’s got to take on a little more leadership. It’s not just one guy, it’s not just Brad with the ‘C,’ it’s not just Pasta and Chuckie with the ‘A’s,’ it’s everyone,” said Coyle. “We have a lot of leaders in here, whether you have a letter or not. And everyone’s going to step up that way and do their part. … Every year you get a little better with that because we all lead in our own way.”