Thrilled as he’s been over the recent emergence of more-tenacious 5-on-5 play and secondary scoring leading to a 4-0 road trip and a season-long, seven-game winning streak, Boston Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney hasn’t let this power surge fog up his glasses.
Wednesday, Sweeney gambled. He traded one of his many NHL prospects, 22-year-old forward Ryan Donato, and a fifth-round draft pick that will get 40 spots better if Boston wins a playoff series. In return from the Minnesota Wild, the Bruins received Charlie Coyle.
The trade solves a huge problem for the Bruins.
Coyle, also a Boston-area kid (albeit 26), is a 6-foot-3, 220-pound monster of a right-shot who can immediately stabilize the third line as a center or fortify the top six on right wing with Patrice Bergeron or David Krejci.
Think of a young, faster version of David Backes, the veteran forward that Sweeney signed as a free agent in 2016 with a similar idea (more on Backes below).
The Bruins (36-17-8) are four points clear of Toronto for second place in the Atlantic Division. At 80 points with 21 games remaining, Boston is second in the Eastern Conference and third overall in the National Hockey League.
Becoming the first Bruins team since Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito to win 50 in consecutive campaigns is a long shot, but a second-straight 100-point season and home ice on opening night of the playoffs is well within reach.
What Sweeney never lost sight of is the hole in his lineup, the one that would not allow head coach Bruce Cassidy to roll four forward lines with confidence.
“Especially 5-on-5, I think the balance in scoring is something that as of late we’ve done a real good job of but, it’s an area we needed to address,” said Sweeney on a conference call Thursday. “(The acquisition of Coyle) also gives us a two-position player with size and strength and speed that we can move around the lineup and feel comfortable in a bunch of different positions and a bunch of different roles.”
Through several months of auditions for a third-line centerman, the Bruins’ 5-on-5 game has sputtered, and they have survived too many nights on the strength of their power play.
It’s no recipe for playoff success, but up until now Cassidy and his staff have been masterful in masking the problem. From leaning on their on-ice leaders to tactical deployment of what has been a parade of prospects whose adrenaline has given off false positives before hitting their own walls, it’s been an incredible run to this lofty position.
Credit the drafting/development synergy that Sweeney and the Boston coaching staff have forged with Providence Bruins GM John Ferguson Jr. and coach Jay Leach. If every prospect pans out, we still won’t be talking about the 1980s Edmonton Oilers, but this organization knows exactly what it’s doing blending the next generation with the current one, interspersing visits, giving the kids a taste but, at the same time, not throwing them to the wolves.
From a hockey standpoint, the Backes signing was hailed in this space as a coup for the same basic reason Coyle is a difference-making acquisition.
Wednesday night’s deciding shootout conversion in Vegas notwithstanding, the hockey part hasn’t gone according to plan. But, despite Backes’ challenges just to stay in the lineup, much less produce anything like he had for so many years in St. Louis, the Bruins are being rewarded for their five-year, $30 million investment.
Character is a genuine quality, leadership is a skill, and if the Bruins are going to get where they want to go it can’t only be the 2011 guys setting the bar. There has to be an extension of the culture. Backes’ example has been an integral part of Boston’s success, and Coyle is about to join a group of beneficiaries.
Sweeney objected to the idea that Coyle is a second swing at the same fence, but from a hockey-widget standpoint, a comparison between the two players is difficult to ignore.
Coyle is substantially younger, skates more fluidly, and may in the end play more along the lines of Nathan Horton than Backes. If Coyle’s style points ultimately do not reflect on either comparison being made here, the Weymouth, Mass., native still provides an instant upgrade to the roster.
Bottom line: In Coyle, Sweeney has acquired a multifaceted player who is signed through next season. Boston fans will notice the difference, whether it’s in an emerging consistency of better 5-on-5 play or, when the Bruins need a goal, adding a hard-skating physical presence to the top lines.