As I write this, I’m trying to decide which is worse, sheltering in place with no NHL playoff hockey or watching the Boston Bruins crash last year’s Stanley Cup Final? The truth is, I have suffered less this year than last.
I have nothing against the Bruins. They used to push around my beloved Minnesota North Stars until an epic, record-setting, fight-filled brawl in Boston’s famed Garden back in 1981 launched the Stars on a memorable Cup run, but I digress.
Coyle Comes Alive
Why watching the Bruins’ surge last spring tested my gag reflex was because Charlie Coyle ignited the drive. After all, when Coyle was with the Wild, he couldn’t shoot a puck into the ocean from the beach. Yet, there he was, not only scoring goals but scoring goals in PLAYOFF GAMES. Of course he was, because if you know anything about the painful history of Minnesota sports, it was inevitable that a player we gave up on went on to star somewhere else. (from ‘This (updated) list of Minnesota sports misery is sad,’ Star Tribune, 01/23/2018) Can you say, “Big Papi”?
For a sports market that’s suffered as much as the Minnesota one has, watching Coyle suddenly become the player we were always told he would be was just about the most “Minnesota sports thing” ever, and, frankly, I wanted no part of it.
To fully appreciate the pain that came with watching Coyle produce in the playoffs for Boston, you have to look back at the 2019 Coyle – Ryan Donato trade and the circumstances that brought Coyle to the Minnesota Wild in the first place.
Coyle, a native of Weymouth, Massachusetts, was a first-round pick by the San Jose Sharks in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft (No. 28 overall). As a freshman at Boston University, he registered 7 goals and 26 points while taking time out to help Team USA win a bronze medal at the 2011 World Junior Championships.
He left BU during his sophomore year to join the Saint John Seadogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League where he scored 15 goals and 38 points in just 23 games in his only season in the Q.
The FIRST Charlie Coyle Trade
Coyle only played one season in junior because in June 2011, Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher, who never could decide what kind of team he was trying to assemble, decided he didn’t want a team where a big, rangy, two-way defenseman could suddenly take over a game. He traded Brent Burns, arguably the team’s best player and an emerging star, AND a second-round draft pick to the Sharks for forward Devin Setoguchi, a first-round pick, and yes, you guessed it, Charlie Coyle.
I could get lost discussing the Wild’s misuse of Burns, and the fact that we had to watch him not only become one of the most dominant defensemen in the NHL but lead the Sharks to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016. It’s not like we haven’t been on the wrong end of some bad deals in the past, but again I digress.
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The key piece for the Wild in the Burns trade was not Setoguchi, a forward who would play less than two full seasons in Minnesota before being dealt to the Calgary Flames for a second-round pick in 2014. The key, we were told, was Coyle, an emerging talent with a world of potential. GOAL SCORING potential.
Coyle Starts Strong
Initially, we didn’t have much to complain about. After playing the first half of the 2012-13 season in the AHL, Coyle made his NHL debut in Feb. 2013, and in just 37 games, he scored 8 goals and 14 points while helping the Wild reach the playoffs for the first time in five seasons. Those were happy times. The storyline was, “Gosh, that Charlie Coyle! He’s big, skates well, does the dirty work along the boards, his teammates love him, and he’s only going to get better!” Sounds good right? It did, and I said it year after year.
Waiting for Coyle to blossom into the goal scorer he was expected and projected to be as a first-round draft choice was like waiting for a bus that never arrived – waiting outside, in January, in Minnesota, without a coat, without boots, but still believing the bus WAS on its way. I mean, we could see the bus, and it looked like a nice bus. The people in charge of the bus kept telling us how great the bus was, all the other buses loved the bus, but somehow, the bus never arrived. Ever.
Stuck in Neutral
Coyle scored 11 goals in 2014-15, a career-high 21 goals in 2015-16, 18 goals in 2016-17, and 11 goals in 2017-18. Math was never my strong suit, but that averages out to just over 14 goals per season, and when he was stuck on 10 goals through 60 games in the 2018-19 campaign, enough was enough. Was his production enough for a third-line forward? Maybe, but that was not what the Wild had in mind when they acquired him as the principal in the Burns deal.
Near the end of another unproductive season, with the playoffs unlikely, the Wild sent Coyle to the Bruins for Donato and a conditional fifth-round pick. Donato, another Massachusetts native, was a former second-round draft choice, Hobey Baker Award finalist, U.S. Olympian, the son of a former Bruin, and had been unable to earn a spot anywhere on Boston’s top two lines.
Donato? OK, Fine
I’d say I didn’t care what or who the Wild were getting for Coyle because I was so fed up with watching him miss wide-open nets, but I did care, and to hear Donato tagged as “a goal-scorer” was music to my ears. They could have followed it by saying that he eats with his mouth open or that he hasn’t showered in a month and I wouldn’t have cared, as long as he was able to light the lamp.
In 22 games with the Wild at the end of the 2018-19 season, Donato scored just four goals, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. He averaged just under three shots a game and added a dozen assists. His 16 points in 22 games were the most on the team during that time, and the Wild did miss the playoffs.
So, Where Are We?
This season, Coyle returned to the Coyle of old. Through 60 games he produced very Coyle-like numbers with 16 goals and 37 points. That is fine for a third-line player, which is exactly where the Bruins had him. Advantage Boston.
As for that conditional pick? It became a fourth-rounder by virtue of Boston’s playoff run, but the Wild shipped it to the Carolina Hurricanes in a separate deal, making the Coyle for Donato deal basically a one-for-one transaction.
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Donato? He produced 14 goals and 23 points through 62 games with the Wild, while spending much of the season in former head coach Bruce Boudreau’s doghouse as a healthy scratch.
When Dean Evason replaced the fired Boudreau as interim head coach on Valentine’s Day, Donato started to see more ice time, which led to a spurt of three goals and two assists over a four-game stretch. Still, as the Wild played their best hockey of the season leading up to the pandemic pause, he was MIA, notching just one goal and one assist in the team’s last five games, while averaging about 10 minutes per game as a fourth-line center.
Can Wild Still Win This?
So, while the Bruins have already spiked the ball in the end zone on this trade, I contend that the jury is still out. In the limited time he’s been with the Wild, Donato has yet to become a fan or lockerroom favorite like Coyle was, but, there’s still time. If he can take the next step, perhaps filling the void at center, should Mikko Koivu call it a career before next season, there is still a chance that the Wild can come out on top in this transaction.
At the very least, we don’t have to wonder when Coyle will finally become a first-round goal scorer, because that bus hasn’t arrived yet in Beantown, either. The difference is, the Bruins seem to be just fine with that.