Charlie Coyle has taken some heat.
He's taken heat from us here at Hockey Wilderness. For the better part of last season, he's taken heat as being the poster child of Mike Yeo's maddening lineup decisions. As many will remember, we've criticized Yeo for continuing to play Coyle in a Top-6 role, at the expense of Nino Niederreiter, who was playing superior hockey. When he was being valued over Niederreiter, Coyle was overrated last season.
He's taken heat from the Wild fanbase this season. As he labored through a stretch of 34 games where he scored just one goal, people started taking notice of his slump. Particularly since it started almost immediately after signing his 5-year, 16 million dollar extension. Theories as to the reason for Coyle's disappointing year ranged from confidence, to feeling the pressure of living up to his extension, to lack of aptitude for being a "power-forward", to being hurt by lack of AHL development time. Or maybe Coyle just wasn't that good. Maybe Coyle would always be that 30-point guy we saw last season.
Since then, Coyle's heated up, but the general sentiment towards him is still lukewarm. Coyle's ice time has been slowly declining all season, dipping to 13:21/game in March, despite scoring 8 points so far. Fans who appreciate raw scoring numbers are pointing to Thomas Vanek as an example of a hot player. Analytically-minded fans are clamoring for Justin Fontaine to get recognition. Amazingly, despite playing good hockey in a third-line center role, Coyle has gone from overrated to underrated in just a little over a year.
Friends, it's time to properly rate Charlie Coyle.
Let's first dispel any notion that Coyle's season is only a marginal improvement from last. Yes, Coyle has scored only 34 points in 74 games, after scoring 30 in 70 in 2013-14. An improvement from 0.43 Points/Game to 0.46. Yawn.
But if you look any deeper than that, and you'll see that progress is happening, despite every possible factor being stacked against Coyle.
First let's start with the big one: ice time. I've mentioned earlier how Coyle's ice time has been decreasing all season long, and it's noticeably down from last season. Last year, Coyle got 17:05 per game, and this year, it's 14:46, and falling. We're talking about a difference almost two and a half minutes per game. To put it this way, even if Coyle plays all 82 games this year, it's not a lock that he'll get more ice time than he did in just 70 games last season.
This is why, despite his raw point totals matching up to last season's, Coyle's Points/60 improved by a whopping half point (up from 1.35 to 1.85). But look even deeper, and the improvements to his game are even more impressive.
I won't bore you with a ton of fancy stats, but this year Coyle has seen himself start dramatically more in the defensive zone that he's ever had, and he's gone from playing with Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise to players who aren't quite that caliber. When your coach deploys you so defensively, it often means that your offensive performance is going to suffer, as well as your possession stats. But his ability to control play has been on the rise, as he turned from a negative possession player into a positive one.
Considering all the ways his ice time, teammates, and zone starts could have had an adverse impact on his game, Coyle's been able to persevere through it all in order to emerge a better player than he was last year.
Yes, Coyle is probably not going to be the force that his size and skill-set once suggested he could be. Yes, getting a third-line center- no matter how well he fills that role- probably isn't exactly what the Wild were hoping for when they made the Brent Burns trade. Yes, we'd all like to see Coyle add more aggression to his game, whether it be through physicality, or going to the net more. But instead of zeroing in on Coyle's flaws, let's take a minute to appreciate how his development has progressed, and how well he's performed his role this year.