Charlie Coyle will be the X-factor in the Brent Burns trade

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Over the last month, we’ve seen Brent Burns, Devin Setoguchi, Dany Heatley, Martin Havlat, and (recently) James Sheppard move between Minnesota and San Jose. But when all is said and done, Charlie Coyle could be the most important player involved in the Minnesota Wild and San Jose Sharks offseason version of Trading Places. Yet as we speak, he’s easily the most unknown player of the lot. So who is Charlie Coyle and why did the Minnesota Wild insist on acquiring him as part of the Brent Burns blockbuster trade in June?

First, the obvious: Coyle’s a big boy. A year after he was drafted, the soon-to-be Boston University sophomore is 6’3” and tipping the scales around 220 lbs. He’s a long, rangy player who has been growing into his body at BU, but he was also known as a very good skater coming out of the draft. While he’s at his best when he grinding below the circles and fighting for position in front of the net, he also has above average ice-vision and passing abilities. He’s big, he’s getting stronger, he has great hands, and he’s not afraid to go to the high traffic areas. Put all that together and you have a pretty talented player with a high ceiling.

He played American Tier III Junior A hockey in the Eastern Junior Hockey League (EJHL). The combination of playing in weak Junior A league and the fact that he was a late bloomer caused him to drop a little further in the draft than if he had produced in a more recognizable league. Even when he was drafted 28th overall by the Sharks, he still became the highest ever draft pick from the league.

Last season was a much different story. Instead of just being known as Tony Amonte’s nephew, Coyle started to make a name for himself. He scored 7 goals and 19 assists for the Terriers en route to winning Hockey East’s Rookie of the Year honors. At the World Junior Championships in Buffalo, Coyle threw his own personal coming-out party on the international stage. Coyle shot up the depth chart until he found himself playing on the top line for Team USA on a team that was supposed to be stacked down the middle for the WJC. Anyone who had questions about the level of his competition in the past quickly saw that among the world’s best prospects, his star shone as bright as any other.

The success wasn’t any surprise to Chuck Fletcher or the Minnesota Wild scouting staff. They had the South Shore alum ranked in the middle of the first round in the 2010 draft—when the Sharks and Wild started talking about a trade involving Brent Burns, Minnesota’s staff jumped at the opportunity to nab the player they coveted a year before. GM Fletcher is on record that Coyle had to be part of the trade for Brent Burns or there would be no deal. Not too bad for a guy who has never played an NHL game and only has one year of major college hockey under his belt.

The move to acquire Coyle, Setoguchi, and the Sharks 1st round pick is part of a bigger shift in organization thinking from Minnesota management. They took a step back and reevaluated where the team stands on NHL landscape and what they need to do become successful. Wild GM Chuck Fletcher quickly got to the heart of the matter after trading Burns at the draft with a healthy dose of honesty:

“In order to complete with the top teams in the league, we have to add more talent.”

Aside from flashy Finland native Mikael Granlund, the Wild don’t have many forward prospects that project as offensive players at the NHL level. At this point, Coyle looks like he’ll fulfill his potential as a Top 6 power forward in the NHL sometime in the near future. He’s slated to spend at least another year with BU developing his game and putting on muscle, and hopefully serving in a leadership role with Team USA at the World Junior Championships. After the season, the organization will be able to make a decision on his future. If he continues to progress at the same rate, he’ll be in the NHL sooner rather than later.

Coyle is excited about the direction of his new team:

“It’s kind of cool to think about — they have all these young guys coming. Every team is different. San Jose is trying to load their team for next year. Minnesota is trying to build their team for coming years — it’s going to be special to see how they’re going to be in a few years.”

Coyle will be a one of those players to keep an eye on over the next few years. The old axiom for trades is simple: whoever gets the best player wins the trade. For now, Brent Burns is the best player in the trade—but Coyle is the type of player who has the potential to flip that logic on its head. Give him another year in college and another year with Team USA against the world’s best Under-20 prospects and Coyle just may be the best player who comes out of that trade.

That’s exactly what the Wild organization is betting on.

Elvis thrives: Merzlikins is on fire for Blue Jackets

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Elvis Merzlikins advanced a bold goal lately: to be more than just a funny name. He is leaving opponents all shook  up absolutely red-hot for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

Elvis absolutely hound-dogged shut out the New Jersey Devils in Columbus’ 5-0 on Saturday, and that 41-save performance was far from his first standout evening. Merzlikins generated three shutouts in his last four games, allowing just two goals overall. The Blue Jackets won all four of those games.

(OK, this post includes enough cheesy Elvis jokes … arguably.)

During seven appearances between October and November, the 25-year-old goalie languished with sub-.900 save percentages. Since then, he’s started to take off.

Some “too perfect” moments for Elvis Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets

Maybe Merzlikins made a New Year’s Eve resolution to dominate? Perhaps it was because Elvis asked reporters to leave him alone? Merzlikins suffered only two losses since Dec. 31, winning eight of 10 games.

The lights-out play already makes the story endearing, but there are notes of the surreal. Consider a few facts about his hot streak:

“That’s what you like about him. He’s strong mentally,” Tortorella said after the Jan. 11 Vegas shutout, via Rob Mixer of First Ohio Battery. “He’s a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here…but he’s handled himself really well. I’m happy for him.”

  • Merzlikins ended up making it back-to-back shutouts, as he also blanked the Bruins with a 34-save shutout. His three shutouts have upped the ante each time: first 27 saves, then 34, then 41 against the Devils on Saturday.

Tortorella deserves ample credit for creating a cocoon for his goalies, of course.

Regardless, Merzlikins is playing a big role in helping the Blue Jackets stay in the East wild-card races. Here’s hoping that our jokes rise up the charts or we might just need to leave the building.

(Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hat trick helps Ovechkin pass Lemieux, tie Yzerman for ninth on NHL goals list

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An historic week for Alex Ovechkin was capped off with a hat trick Saturday afternoon during a 6-4 win over the Islanders. His three goals pushes him past Mario Lemieux and into ninth place with 692, tying him with Steve Yzerman.

Ovechkin opened the scoring and then passed Mario Lemieux for 10th all-time in the third period as the Capitals mounted their comeback. He ended his day with an empty-netter to seal the win and tie Yzerman. The Islanders led 4-1 entering the third period.

Powered by two consecutive hat tricks, Ovechkin has eight goals in his last three games and 10 in his previous six.

That’s now three consecutive multi-goal games for Ovechkin, the first time he’s done that in his career. Earlier this week he not only passed Teemu Selanne for 11th on the all-time goals list but also hit the 30-goal mark for the 15th time in his career. He, along with Jaromir Jagr and Mike Gartner, are the only players to ever record 15 consecutive 30-goal seasons.

With three goals Saturday — the third time he’s recorded hat tricks in consecutive games — Ovechkin now has 34 on the season as he eyes a ninth 50-goal season. His hat trick was the 26th of his NHL career, tying him with Maurice Richard for eighth all-time.

Next in Ovechkin’s sights? Mark Messier, who finished with 694 goals in his career.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Stars’ Stephen Johns activated after missing almost 22 months

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Dallas Stars activated Stephen Johns before their game Saturday night in Minnesota, clearing the way for the defenseman’s first game in almost 22 months.

Forward Radek Faksa was placed on injured reserve to make room for Johns on the active roster.

Johns has been out since late in the 2017-18 season because of post-traumatic headaches. The Stars have said the condition isn’t related to concussions.

The 27-year-old Johns hasn’t played since March 29, 2018, at the Wild. It was the last of a career-high 75 games in his third NHL season. Johns missed the last five games that year before sitting out all of last season as headaches persisted.

He played two games on a conditioning assignment with the Texas Stars of the AHL before rejoining Dallas on Thursday.

The return of Johns could coincide with the Stars’ first game without defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old standout left Thursday’s loss to Buffalo with an upper-body injury.

Johns made his debut for Dallas late in the 2014-15 season and played in all 13 of the team’s playoff games as a rookie. He has 13 goals, 15 assists and 306 blocked shots in 150 career regular-season games.

Panthers down another goalie, injured Driedger to miss weeks

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Florida goalie Chris Driedger will miss several weeks with what’s believed to be a groin injury, the latest health issue at that position for the Panthers.

The Panthers announced the diagnosis Saturday, calling it a lower-body injury.

Driedger was hurt midway through the first period of the Panthers’ 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. He is 5-2-0 in nine appearances for Florida this season, with a 2.48 GAA.

The Panthers have also been without goalie Sergei Bobrovsky for much of January while he recovers from an upper-body injury.

Florida begins a stretch of six consecutive road games Saturday in Detroit. That six-game run also includes the All-Star break and the Panthers’ bye week.