ST. PAUL, Minn. — Charlie Coyle said he feels like he has switched from center to right wing every other year of his career.
The line nomad is looking pretty comfortable in his return to center for the Minnesota Wild this season.
Coyle put his claim in for one of the center spots with a goal in Saturday’s 4-3 preseason shootout win against the Winnipeg Jets. Coyle played 17 minutes, 52 seconds, had three shots on goal and won 80 percent of his faceoffs on Saturday.
“He was a horse,” Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said. “Both ends of the rink, obviously scoring the goal but all over the ice; good to see him have a real strong game in the faceoff circle too, winning some big draws for us. His goal, direct result of that, but all over the ice doing the little things right. And obviously a big powerful guy who still continues to look like he has another gear in his game, especially coming through the middle of the ice playing center right now.”
Coyle, who spent most of his rookie season with the Wild last year on the team’s top line with Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu, is competing for one of the center spots behind Koivu this season. It could come down to a decision for Yeo between two sophomores in Coyle and Mikael Granlund, with Koivu leading the top line and Kyle Brodziak entrenched on the third line.
With Jason Pominville returning for his first full season with Minnesota, Coyle was moved to center at the start of training camp and is getting the chance to prove his value as the second-line center.
The move to the middle hasn’t disrupted the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Coyle’s progress. He felt he only needed to get the “cobwebs” out in his return to center.
“I think it just took a little bit,” Coyle said. “Third exhibition game, so I’m getting in the swing of things more, I think. Even faceoffs, getting used to that and just little things, coming back in the zone, being available for the defensemen to make a breakout pass. Just the little things, but it’s all coming together.”
Koivu hasn’t seen much of a difference from his one-time linemate in his second season.
“I think he was good all of last year too,” Koivu said. “But obviously I think he’s more comfortable, that’s for sure, on and off the ice, which is natural. I think you see that in his game too. He’s more confident. I don’t know, if he can be stronger, I think he seems stronger on the puck. He’s shooting the puck well and obviously playing at center, it’s not an easy adjustment at that age. So, he’s doing a good job with that.”
Coyle, who worked on his speed and strength in the offseason, played Saturday night with Dany Heatley and rookie Justin Fontaine, and added the Wild’s second goal after a shot from the point deflected to him right near the goal and he easily scored in an open net.
Coyle also won 12 of the 15 faceoffs he took, one of the biggest changes in his move back to center.
“This is obviously a step up at this level and the guys here,” Coyle said of his faceoffs. “Just trying to learn each day and improve.”
Yeo said he was also pleased with Granlund’s game on Saturday and isn’t in a rush to declare any jobs won.
“He didn’t get the goal that Charlie got, but I thought that he had a strong game tonight too,” Yeo said. “Both of those guys continue to push. We’re only three games into it. We’re halfway through our exhibition season right now and we said that we weren’t going to make any decisions or rush to any decisions, that we’re going to use this whole preseason, and both guys are doing the things we’re looking for.”
First taste of the first line: Saturday’s game featured many of Minnesota’s expected top players this season and was the first preseason game for the top line of Koivu, Parise and Pominville.
The trio accounted for two assists and 11 shots.
“I thought it was OK,” Parise said. “I think that we’re going to be a lot better. We made a few mistakes, we turned the puck over a few times. I think the intentions were there and the plays the right mind, its just not as sharp as we’re going to be, as we need to be. But I thought as the game went on, it was a little better.”
Pominville scored in the third round of the shootout, the only goal in the shootout, to give Minnesota the win.
“I was fortunate to be the third shooter, so I was able to see a little bit of what their goalie does and I just kind of changed my angle and was able to find a hole,” Pominville said. “Again, I was just kind of fortunate to go third and get a better feel for what I was going to do.”
Parise and Pominville both said getting the preseason game action is important as they get ready for the season.
“I think as the game went on we did some better things,” Pominville said. “Obviously a little bit rusty, especially your first few shifts, everything seems like it’s happening so fast out there. There is a difference between our scrimmages and when you throw people in the building and the refs and the blood’s flowing. The intensity rises and it is different. You got a lot less time and I think as the game went on, the game slowed down for us and it was better.”
Ballard impresses: Defenseman Keith Ballard, who was signed in the offseason after playing with Vancouver last year, had two assists Saturday.
“I really liked his game tonight,” Yeo said. “He’s a guy that I really believe that the more he continues to get comfortable with our game and kind of the way that we’re playing, that he’s just going to continue to get better. I thought that he had a real impact on the game tonight.”