The debate concerning what position Charlie Coyle should play has become somewhat of a chicken-or-the-egg type discussion amongst Wild fans. There has been a lot of points made by both sides, but for the most part Coyle's deployment as a full-time center this season has been accepted by the fan base. Coyle's game has continued to develop this season from where it was last year, and his overall progress has been great this year. But unfortunately the team's weakness at the center position has forced the team's hand in assigning Coyle to the pivot, negating the ability to put Coyle in the best position for his personal development.
I had mentioned to some of my peers earlier in the year my strong feelings toward moving Coyle back to the wing for two reasons. 1) There are signs that Charlie will break out offensively on the wing and 2) Charlie cheats defensively when playing center, handicapping his ability to provide offense. Most of the discussion to this point was around point #1, and there was a lot of back-and-forth about his value as a pivot vs what his value would be as a wing with a few more goals. But I'd first like to take a look at point #2 as we drill farther into this question.
The Wild's system generally makes all three forwards' positioning interchangeable depending on how they enter the zone. Theoretically, the forwards are considered F1, F2, and F3 in this system, and are completely interchangeable as the puck is cycled around the zone:
As you can see above, the system's design is that the forwards are free to rotate throughout the zone as the puck moves, but there is always one forward in the F3 position to be ready to peel back on the back check. When executed properly, the system allows the center to carry the puck deep into the zone and assert themselves on the forecheck, while another forward puts themself in the F3 position. However, I noticed something early on in the season that I thought was a problem for Charlie Coyle. More often than not, Coyle finds himself in the F3 position while playing center, rather than rotating throughout the zone. He is cheating back to be ready to cover his defensive responsibilities.
In his most recent interview with the Star Tribune's Michael Russo, Coyle himself identified the issue and explained that he was aware of it and trying to work on trusting the system to allow him down low as he develops at the position. "When I play center and I know Mike (Yeo) had seen it, too, sometimes I play more safe than when I'm playing wing," Coyle said. "I'm always the third guy high and almost get into safe mode." This is a problem, and I would argue the biggest thing holding Coyle back from breaking out offensively. Coyle went on to say, "I've tried to get away from that. If I'm the first guy in, just stay in there and know my other two wingers are backing me up. I've tried to put that in my head and get right in there."
We've seen Coyle develop throughout this season. Though he hasn't quite lit up the scoreboard, we have seen him play a good overall game, meshing with his role as 3C very well, and having a positive impact on possession. We've seen flashes of brilliance and a few goals, but we can all see that Charlie has so much more offensive potential. He has played the role of 3C effectively, but I strongly feel that with his 6'3" 220-pound frame, Coyle has the all the tools including size, speed and hands to be a top-6 power forward with a scoring touch. It just has not come together for Coyle in his current deployment or throughout his 4 seasons in the NHL.
In a vacuum, Coyle would be given the time to develop his scoring touch while playing meaningful minutes on the Wing. That would give him the opportunity to have reckless abandon with his positioning and use his best assets of size and soft hands to create havoc down low in the opponent's end. But unfortunately, the Wild's lack of depth down the middle has forced the issue and pushed Coyle into that role full time. When a player shows flashes of brilliance like Coyle did for Team USA for the IIHF World Championship earlier in 2105, a team should go to great lengths to curate that talent. Coyle scored 3G and 2A over 5 games, playing right wing, in limited minutes. We have also seen flashes of brilliance in his play for the Wild, where we have seen him score at a high rate in the preseason. And of course, we all remember this beauty:
So when a player with this immense amount of talent calls himself out publicly for cheating back defensively, it would be ideal to make a change to get him back to where he can be most effective with the expectation that we see more of the evidence provided above. Coyle has always been full of potential, and while he has most certainly progressed this season, his season, particularly in regards to scoring, is much higher. If the Wild were adequate at the center position, the opportunity to shift Coyle back to the wing would become realistic. We almost got to see an extended look this season when Tyler Graovac made the team, but his injury snuffed that out immediately. It also appears that even though Erik Haula was promoted to a line with Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker for a game did not mean that he was playing well in the coaches eyes, so putting Haula on the 3rd line also isn't likely to happen, and Jarret Stoll is most definitely a 4th line center. The short answer is that the Wild don't currently have the ability to put Coyle in his best position to succeed, right wing.