Zulgad: Inconsistent Coyle shows he still has ability to make a difference

ST. PAUL — Charlie Coyle isn’t a bad hockey player by any means, but there are many nights when you watch the 6-foot-3, 220-pound winger and wonder what happened to the guy we expected to turn into a dominant power forward.

In many ways, the 26-year-old is the Wild’s version of Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins has performances like he did on Wednesday night for the Timberwolves against New Orleans (23 points, six rebounds, four assists, three steals) and you’re left baffled about where that player is on the many evenings that Wiggins either seems uninspired or uninterested. It’s far too often that you watch the Wild and realize you never noticed Coyle.

And then there are nights like Thursday at Xcel Energy Center.

With Zach Parise sick at home, Coyle was moved from the Wild’s third line to the second line with Mikko Koivu at center and Nino Niederreiter (who also has disappeared far too often this season but scored a goal Thursday) on the left wing.

Coyle entered the game with only two goals on the season and having failed to score in the past 10. That changed when Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin flipped a pass that came down in the slot not far from Canucks goalie Richard Bachman. Bachman, for unknown reasons, did not attempt to come out and poke the puck away and Coyle picked it up, made a move on Bachman and scored on a backhand shot.

You could see Coyle’s confidence instantly skyrocket and suddenly the puck was finding his stick and so were the scoring chances. A Canucks turnover nearly resulted in another Coyle goal but this time he was stopped by Bachman. Coyle finished the first period with a team-leading three shots and that number stood at five through two periods of what became an easy 6-2 Wild victory over a road-weary Canucks team that was completing a six-game road trip that ended with three regulation defeats.

“I though the first period especially was really good,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said of Coyle’s game. “I think he had three or four shots in the first period. He doesn’t usually shoot so when he shoots. … His speed got him the first goal; I thought he could have had a couple more.”

When asked if that’s the type of response Boudreau wanted to see when he elected to have Coyle replace Parise on the Koivu line, Boudreau said: “That’s the kind of response you want when you haven’t scored goals in 10 games, too.”

Coyle finished with a team-high six shots.

“Sometimes it comes in bunches, sometimes you’re doing the right thing and it doesn’t come,” said Coyle, whom the Wild acquired from San Jose in the Brent Burns trade in 2011. “Hockey’s a weird sport, but you just focus on doing what made you successful as a player and what’s going to help your linemates. That’s all I’m trying to do. If it goes in it goes in and you feel good. If it doesn’t you keep working for it and that’s all you can do.”

So will Coyle’s success on Thursday lead to more goals or is another dry spell right around the corner? It’s certainly fair to expect more from Coyle in the goal-scoring department, even when he is back on the third line with Joel Eriksson Ek and Jordan Greenway. That is likely to happen on Saturday against Buffalo when Parise is expected to return from his illness.

Remember, Coyle is in year four of a five-year, $16 million contract that he signed in October 2014. The following season, Coyle rewarded the Wild with a career-high 21 goals and the season after he had 18 goals and a career-best 56 points. Coyle also had turned into something of an ironman by playing in all 82 regular-season games for three consecutive years.

But that ended last season when Coyle broke his leg in only the third game in Chicago and he missed 16 games. He played in 66 games and had only 11 goals and 37 points. Following the Wild’s first-round playoff loss to Winnipeg, Coyle had surgery on both wrists.

That led to the feeling that Coyle would be ready to rebound in a big way this season but statistically that hasn’t happened. The feeling now is that if the Wild is going to have a dominant power forward type it’s going to be Greenway.

Coyle scored his first goal of the season in the Wild’s fourth game against Carolina, went three more games before scoring again and then went into the prolonged goal-scoring drought that ended Thursday. He did have seven assists to go along with his two goals in 18 games and was a plus-4 so it wasn’t as if Coyle was awful. It’s just that he hasn’t always been that noticeable.

It has been suggested from this space that Coyle might benefit from a change of scenery but new general manager Paul Fenton has wanted to take a long look at guys like Coyle. On Thursday, Fenton had to like what he saw from not only Coyle but also Niederreiter, who got only his second goal of the season when he scored off a Koivu feed on a second-period power play.

“It helps, you score and you feel good about yourself,” Coyle said. “I think if you’re doing the right things and you get those chances you feed off of that. I think for me when I get in  the game physically and throw a hit, get hit, whatever, get the chances, it really helps.”

The Wild need Coyle to start doing all of the above far more frequently.