Nick Goss

How have Bruins exceeded expectations? Look no further than Coyle, Zacha

A pair of top-six centers has helped Boston remain one of the NHL's best teams.

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One of the primary reasons why expectations for the Boston Bruins entering the 2023-24 NHL season were lower than normal was due to the offseason departures of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci.

Losing one top-six center in a single summer is difficult to overcome. Losing two is a massive challenge. And it's not like the Bruins had the salary cap space or trade assets to pull off a major acquisition for an elite center.

The Bruins had two candidates already on their roster -- Charlie Coyle and Pavel Zacha. Coyle had been the Bruins' third-line center since he was acquired via trade in 2019. Zacha played on the wing last season after being acquired via trade in July of 2022, but he's a natural center.

We got a preview of Coyle and Zacha as the top-six centers during last season's first-round playoff series versus the Florida Panthers. Bergeron and Krejci didn't play in Game 3 and Game 4 due to injuries. The Bruins won each of those games to take a 3-1 series lead, and both Coyle and Zacha played well. Bergeron returned in Game 5 and Krejci in Game 6, but Boston ultimately lost the series in overtime of Game 7.

Those two games in Florida were a small but exciting sample of what Coyle and Zacha might do in larger, top-six roles. But could they actually play like that for a full season? The answer, luckily for the Bruins, has been a resounding yes.

Let's start with Coyle. He has been the most valuable forward on the Bruins not named David Pastrnak.

Coyle's 25 goals are a career high, surpassing his previous best of 21 during the 2015-16 season. His seven power-play goals, the latest of which came Saturday in a win over the Florida Panthers, are also a career high.

His 33 assists are the second-most of his career. His 58 points are a new career high. He's also Boston's most reliable penalty-killing forward -- taking over that role from Bergeron -- and ranks No. 3 on the team in faceoffs. He's tough to knock off the puck at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds. His 200-foot presence is immense.

Zacha set a career-high of 57 points last season. He's at 56 this year with four games left before the playoffs. This is the first time in his career that the Czech forward has posted back-to-back seasons of 50-plus points. He leads the team with a 54.9 faceoff percentage. His chemistry with Pastrnak, and more recently Danton Heinen, has been tremendous.

In fact, if you compare Coyle and Zacha's offensive production and faceoff percentages as top-six centers to those of Bergeron and Krejci last season, the numbers are pretty similar.

What Coyle and Zacha have done this season in elevating their production, taking on larger roles and helping replace two of the best players in franchise history has been nothing short of remarkable.

And their performance is a major reason why the Bruins are on track to win the Atlantic Division again and potentially repeat as Presidents' Trophy winners.

Let's not forget: The Bruins didn't just lose Bergeron and Krejci last offseason. Quality offensive players such as Tyler Bertuzzi, Taylor Hall and Dmitry Orlov departed, too. The players who left the Bruins last summer accounted for 102 of the 301 goals the team scored in 2022-23. The Bruins needed players like Coyle and Zacha to step up and fill that void. And that's exactly what's happened so far.

Center was seen as a position of real concern last summer. Fast forward to the present day and those concerns have all been extinguished.

Not only are Coyle and Zacha playing at a high level, rookie center Matthew Poitras shows great promise as well. Morgan Geekie has carved out a nice role as a bottom-six center after being signed to a team-friendly deal as a free agent last summer. Trent Frederic continues to show growth under head coach Jim Montgomery and has set career highs in scoring in back-to-back seasons.

Credit general manager Don Sweeney. His trades for Coyle and Zacha, the signing of Geekie, and drafting Frederic and Poitras, have given the Bruins strong depth down the middle and a group that should be together for several more years to come.

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