Charlie Coyle’s ascension as Bruins’ top-line center has been a game-changer

Bruins

“I think he’s really looking forward to having that opportunity.”

Charlie Coyle is now on pace for 29 goals and 66 points this season. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Brad Marchand knew what was coming.

As Charlie Coyle gathered a skittering puck in the slot, the 31-year-old pivot charged toward Grade-A ice.

Montreal defenseman Jordan Harris attempted to impede Coyle. Juraj Slafkovsky waved his stick in vain support. Justin Barron dropped to his knee in the Habs crease — fortifying the last line of defense alongside Canadiens netminder Sam Montembeault.

A 3-on-1 defensive swarm is usually enough to deter even the most steadfast puck-carriers from ferrying the biscuit into high-danger ice.

But for a 6-foot-3, 218-pound skater like Coyle, a 3-on-1 mismatch stands as a level playing field.

Marchand braced himself.

Rather than trying to punch a puck through a mass of skaters, Coyle dragged his offering behind Montreal’s net. The Habs simply had no chance.

Slafkovsky’s path was finally halted when he glided into the left post of Montreal’s net. Harris’ desperate attempt to slow down Coyle ended with him sputtering behind the goal line.

And before Barron could push himself back on his skates and turn around to the netfront, the damage was already done. Coyle’s behind-the-net detour ended with a quick feed in front, where an unaccounted Marchand was ready to snap the offering into twine.

Coyle’s crisp helper on Marchand’s 20th goal of the season was not the deciding play in Boston’s 9-4 drubbing of the Canadiens on Saturday night.

But the Weymouth native’s individual effort served as a succinct summary of a season where Coyle has asserted himself as an impact, top-six center for the Bruins.

And with both Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci hanging up their skates last summer, Coyle’s ascension has come at a perfect time.

“He’s thrived this year,” Marchand said of Coyle after Boston’s win on Saturday. “ He’s taken some big steps and I think he’s really looking forward to having that opportunity. We’ve been very fortunate to have him in a [third-line] role there for a while, but with Bergy and Krech leaving, I think he was really excited about having that opportunity to be a number one [center].

“He’s taken it and ran with it. And just his approach every day, trying to get better and how committed he is. I’m not surprised to see it, but it’s great. I mean, he’s just getting better every game and even when he’s not on the scoresheet, he does so much and he’s such a dominant force out there, and he can take over a game. You saw it a couple of times today.”

Coyle’s value to the Bruins over the years hasn’t always been measured in the scoresheet. He has lit the lamp 16 times in three of his four full seasons in Boston.

But in 2023-24, Coyle and the Bruins have managed to achieve the best of both worlds as far as Coyle’s on-ice impact.

Stepping into a featured role in Boston’s lineup, Coyle has already matched his previous career-high in tallies with the Bruins with 16 through 45 games this season. He’s on pace for 29 goals and 66 points in 2023-24.

But Coyle’s defensive game hasn’t wavered, either. He still leads all Bruins forwards in shorthanded ice time per game (2:43) — well ahead of the next forward on the roster in Marchand (1:54).

Only a pair of fourth-liners in Jakub Lauko and Johnny Beecher have a lower offensive-zone faceoff percentage at 5v5 play than Coyle (41.89). But even with Coyle’s limited starting reps on favorable ice, the Bruins are still outscoring teams, 28-19, in his 564 minutes of 5v5 ice time this season.

For all of the concerns about Boston’s pivot pipeline following the retirements of both Bergeron and Krejci, the Bruins have had no shortage of options down the middle between Coyle, Pavel Zacha, Morgan Geekie, Matthew Poitras, Trent Frederic, and others.

Much like Coyle, the Bruins’ reworked center grouping may not present as much panache as a pair of franchise pillars like Bergeron and Krejci.

But style points don’t matter all that much, not when the points keep piling up — both on the scoresheet and especially in the standings.

“I just think Charlie’s in a real good place now in the middle of the season,” Jim Montgomery said earlier this week. “He’s a real confident player in what he is and who he is. Now he gets there and it doesn’t matter who’s with him, he keeps playing the same way… I think that’s why it’s working so well. It’s own confidence in his own game.”