The Bruins’ center succession success: How Charlie Coyle and Pavel Zacha replaced two all-timers

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The Bruins’ center succession success: How Charlie Coyle and Pavel Zacha replaced two all-timers

By Charlie Coyle’s recollection, it was 2017 or 2018 when he first met Pavel Zacha for summer workouts at Foxborough’s Edge Performance Systems. Coyle was playing for the Minnesota Wild. Zacha was with the New Jersey Devils.

Foxborough had always been where Coyle trained. He played club hockey for the South Shore Kings at Foxboro Sports Center, EPS’s home rink. As for Zacha, the Czechia native arrived at EPS upon the recommendation of then-teammate Kevin Rooney, who calls Canton home.

Coyle’s first impression of Zacha, the No. 6 selection in 201?

“Those guys who were high picks like that, they have the skill,” he said. “Then you see them off the ice in the gym and they’re very focused. You’re like, ‘You’ve got to watch out for those guys.’”

“Because they’re just going to, ‘Pssshh,’” Coyle added, lifting his hand at a 45-degree angle. “Because they already have the skill. Then they have the work ethic, the compete, the focus to do it too. That’s only going to make them better exponentially.”

Their respective trades — Coyle for Ryan Donato and a fourth-round pick, Zacha for Erik Haula — have not just made the former training partners Boston Bruins. For the first time this season, they were 1-2 down the middle, replacing Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci.

By one measure, they did exactly that.

Coyle, one of four Bruins to play 82 games, finished with 25 goals and 60 points. Zacha scored 21 goals and 59 points. Both point totals are career highs.

Last year, Bergeron scored 27 goals and 58 points, Krejci 16 and 56.

“Those are big roles down the middle, top six in the middle,” said Coyle, formerly the No. 3 center. “It’s something we were both ready for. I know he was excited for it as well as I was. We were just excited and willing to work harder for that role as well.”

That Coyle and Zacha bested the totals of their predecessors is a critical reason the Bruins have home-ice advantage against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Round 1. The Bruins had no other choices.

“It’s what we needed,” coach Jim Montgomery said. “Whether they were five points less, 10 points less, 10 points above, it’s what we needed.”

Charlie Coyle upped his production from 45 points to 60 this season. (Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

Doing everything

Throughout 2023-24, Montgomery noted how Coyle didn’t necessarily need to score at a high rate. Coyle met every ask of his coach aside from production.

Offensively, Coyle took over Bergeron’s longtime role as Brad Marchand’s center. The two veterans settled in as a puck-possession tandem. With Coyle’s assistance, Marchand scored 29 goals, second-most on the team behind David Pastrnak. 

They played to their strengths: Coyle controlling the puck down low, Marchand using his stick skills and tenaciousness to win battles. Jake DeBrusk was their most common right wing. Coyle recorded his first NHL hat trick on Nov. 9, 2023.

“I’m always harping on myself to shoot more, get into those scoring areas,” Coyle said. “That’s a work in progress too. I want to keep adding that to my offensive game But making sure I’m bringing my defensive game and what I’ve been doing decently well over the years — I want to bring that too. I don’t want to lose that part of it. It’s finding that balance and knowing when I can take those opportunities to be on the offense a little more and getting to those spots.”

Coyle’s bread and butter is still raising his hand for difficult situations. He led all team forwards with 2:28 of short-handed ice time per game this season. He took a career-high 1,477 faceoffs. He won 353 defensive-zone draws, No. 2 in the NHL after Mikael Backlund. 

Early in the season, when 19-year-old Matt Poitras was driving offense, Coyle had no complaints about shifting back to No. 3 center temporarily. Coyle has always been about the team first. When it comes to individual play, the 32-year-old is a demanding self-critic. Zacha is the same way. Sometimes it hasn’t served either player well.

“A lot of times, we see more mistakes in our games than success,” Coyle said. “It’s like mid-game, where you do four great things out there and you do this one little thing where you didn’t get the puck fully out at the end of a shift. You’re like, ‘Oh, what?’ And you think of that. So it’s like, ‘No, you did everything. Take the good and the bad. Learn from it and go.’ That’s kind of the mindset. We’re just always trying to be better.”

Pavel Zacha is a natural center and has thrived in his return to the middle. (Claus Andersen / Getty Images)

A scare, then a takeoff

Zacha was scared. On March 2, the center limped out of UBS Arena favoring his right knee. He had crashed into the end boards while killing a penalty.

Zacha played only 4:40 that night against the Islanders. The team’s medical staff told him they would not know the severity of his injury until the next day.

“The next morning when I woke up, it was swelling, nothing else,” Zacha said. “I was happy about that.”

On March 4, Zacha announced he was good to go following the Bruins’ morning skate at Scotiabank Arena. That night, he scored twice in a 4-1 win over the Leafs. It was his first multi-goal game of the year.

Prior to the injury, Zacha had gone 11 straight games without a goal. Zacha was stuck in one of the cycles he had experienced throughout his career. As his production waned, so did his confidence. Like Coyle, Zacha can be hard on himself to a fault.

Scoring twice on a compromised knee helped Zacha understand he can play with the best.

In the 18 games following the collision, he recorded six goals and 14 assists. He led the Bruins with 20 points. Two of his goals were game-winners, also a team-high in this segment.

“It’s funny how it goes sometimes,” Zacha said. “When you don’t feel your best — the game in Toronto, I didn’t feel my best — but it just goes in. You have the chance to see how fast you can create plays out there.”

Zacha is a natural center. But when he first landed in Boston, Bergeron, Krejci and Coyle occupied the top three positions in the middle. So in 2022-23, Zacha took most of his shifts at left wing next to Krejci and Pastrnak, his fellow Czechs. The first-year Bruin did well, setting new career highs with 21 goals and 57 points.

This season, Zacha’s responsibilities increased at center. His workload went up to 18:06 per game, the most he’s ever played. On the power play, he replaced Bergeron in the bumper on the No. 1 unit. Because Zacha is a left shot, the power play turned upside down, requiring Pastrnak to handle the puck more than before.

On the penalty kill, Zacha averaged 1:38 of ice time per game, fourth-most among team forwards. At the dot, Zacha set a personal best by winning 54.8 percent of his 1,068 drops, also a career high.

The 27-year-old’s primary job is to make offensive plays with Pastrnak and Danton Heinen. But Montgomery also counts on Zacha as a do-it-all center too, just behind Coyle.

Before being traded, Zacha missed the playoffs for four straight seasons. It made him think about individual performance more often than preferable. It’s different now.

“You play a very different game than on a team that you’re battling for playoffs,” Zacha said. “You start to win. You play as a team more. Having the opportunity to play here for two years now after four years where it was a question to be in the playoffs, you learn how to play and think about it differently. You’re doing workouts through the whole season, trying to be ready. It’s not done in April.”

(Top photo: Andrew Mordzynski / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)