When the Boston Bruins acquired Charlie Coyle ahead of last season’s trade deadline, he was a pseudo-rental of sorts, a player on a deal that was set to expire in the near future, just not in the next couple months. He had one season-and-change remaining on the five-year pact he had signed some four and a half years earlier with the Minnesota Wild, and his time in Boston was, in essence, his audition for a long-term role with his hometown team.
Suffice to say, Coyle impressed. After a rocky beginning – two goals and six points in 21 games to close out the 2018-19 campaign – Coyle came to life in the post-season and helped the Bruins along their run to the Stanley Cup final with a nine-goal, 16-point output in 24 games. He’s followed that up with another five goals and 14 points in 25 games to start this season, production that has earned him a steady role in Boston’s top six and, more importantly, a brand-new six-year, $31.5-million pact that will see him forego his upcoming shot at unrestricted free agency.
Coyle’s deal, announced Wednesday evening by the Bruins in tandem with Chris Wagner’s three-year, $4.05-million extension, is an absolute no-brainer for Boston for a few reasons. Offensively, of course, the 27-year-old – who will turn 28 by the time his contract kicks in – has been among the Bruins’ top contributors since the start of last post-season. In fact, Coyle has only been outscored by five teammates in that span, a group that includes the literal who’s-who in Boston. His combined 30 points in 49 total games across last season’s playoffs and this regular season put him behind Brad Marchand (66 points), David Pastrnak (58), Patrice Bergeron (41), Torey Krug (36) and David Krejci (33). That’s it. That’s the list.
But Coyle’s value goes beyond scoresheet contributions. One of his most important attributes is his versatility, and there’s been no better showcase of his adaptability than his current role. With Patrice Bergeron sidelined for four of the past six games, Coyle, who has been utilized as a pivot and winger at different periods throughout his career, has slipped into second-line center duty and had a flirtation with top-line minutes Wednesday when he skated between Marchand and Pastrnak for the bulk of the Bruins’ 2-1 victory against the Ottawa Senators.
Any deal of Coyle’s type will inevitably open itself to talk of an overpayment, mind you. And spending north of $5-million per season on a player with just one 20-goal and 50-point season on his resume will raise some eyebrows. What the Bruins have evidently decided, though, is that untapped upside exists within Coyle, even as he enters the mid- to late-stages of his prime. And, you know what? If GM Don Sweeney sees that potential and needs to up his bid slightly to get the deal done, it’s a risk he, unlike some of his counterparts around the league, can legitimately afford to take.
What allow Sweeney that leeway is that he has executed a pair of the highest-value signings in the NHL, locking in offensive leaders Marchand and Pastrnak to deals that will count for a combined $12.8 million against the cap this and in each of the next three campaigns. Essentially, that masterwork affords the Bruins the latitude to overspend slightly on what they believe are key pieces of the organization moving forward. Coyle, if not by dollars then by term, has clearly been identified as one of those pieces. And signing him to his extension hasn’t exactly sapped Boston of all financial flexibility. Assuming no rise in the salary cap, the Bruins are projected to have in the neighborhood of $16.3 million available next summer. So, again, it’s not as though Boston couldn’t afford to pay a slight premium.
Even still, it’s nearing time for Sweeney to begin making some difficult roster decisions. With what cap space will be available, Sweeney will need to tackle extensions for the likes of restricted free agents Jake DeBrusk and Matt Grzelcyk, potentially look to retain bottom-sixer Joakim Nordstrom and goaltender Jaroslav Halak and aging captain Zdeno Chara’s annual one-year deal will be a consideration. Most imperative, however, will be carving out cash to retain Torey Krug, who, despite missing five games, is on pace not only for a fourth consecutive 50-point campaign, but potentially a career-best offensive season.
Currently in the final season of a four-year pact, the going rate for defensemen of Krug’s offensive caliber has increased substantially. In fact, others who have produced similarly to Krug, who has 181 points over the lifespan of his deal, are among the highest-earning defenders in the league. To wit, the five defensemen with more points than Krug, who has a $5.25-million cap hit, include Roman Josi, who recently inked an eight-year extension with a $9.06-million cap hit, Erik Karlsson ($11.5-million), Victor Hedman ($7.88 million), John Carlson ($8 million) and Brent Burns ($8 million). Even conservatively, Krug is in line to ink a pact worth $8-million per season. Chances are the number will inch closer to $9 million.
If that’s the case, there’s little question Boston will look to trim some salary. The easy answer (and a likely scenario) is that David Backes won’t see next season with the Bruins. With one year remaining on his deal, the veteran is prime buyout fodder, and buying him out will save Boston $2 million next season. But if Sweeney wants to go further to increase Boston’s wiggle room, he could potentially do so by seeking to move David Krejci.
Undeniably an important asset right now, particularly with Bergeron sidelined, Krejci’s $7.25-million cap hit is more burden than boon at this juncture. And the no-trade clause Krejci possesses doesn’t make it impossible to move along the 33-year-old pivot. He’s eligible to be sent to half of the league’s teams. That gives Sweeney options he didn’t exactly have prior to this campaign when Krejci’s no-movement clause was in effect. With Coyle locked in, too, this might be the optimal time to seriously consider an off-season move for Krejci. Coyle can take the second-line center role, and with a few prospects in the cupboard, most notably Jack Studnicka, and some veteran pieces who can chip in at center, including Wagner and Sean Kuraly, there’s support down the middle.
For the time being, all will be quiet in Boston. Of that, we can be certain. The Bruins, as currently constructed, are among the league’s best teams, an Eastern Conference contender and legitimate threat to get rolling and run deep into the post-season once again. Given Coyle’s extension and the considerations that must be made in the months that follow the season, however, don’t be surprised if Sweeney is making a difficult decision, one that sees a longtime player cut loose in order to retain a key piece of the defense corps.
(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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