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Coyotes hoping investment in scouting pays dividends like never before

Craig Morgan Avatar
May 22, 2022

NHL scouting staffs rarely garner much media attention. They work long hours and log countless miles in near anonymity, with their one moment in the sun coming at the NHL Draft. This is the first story in a series about the Coyotes’ amateur scouting staff — a series that will shed light on the lifeblood of the Coyotes’ rebuilding efforts by profiling the staff members and examining individual and collective roles. The series will conclude before the 2022 NHL Draft in Montréal.

When Bill Armstrong walked out of his introductory press conference 20 months ago, his mind was swimming in thoughts. He knew that he was under the gun after an acrimonious split between ownership and the previous GM, he knew that he needed to evaluate every level of the hockey operations department, and he knew that rampant change was coming.

“When I walked across the parking lot after doing the interview, I thought to myself, ‘What makes me different than all the other GMs that have been here?’”Armstrong said. “By the time I got to the other side of the parking lot, I said, ‘Well, I’m going to be the first one that has the best scouting staff.’”

With 16 years in the trade guiding his choices, Armstrong believes he has assembled that staff. He brought in a pair of men to head the department whom he describes as yin and yang because of their complementary blend of talents. He brought in an assistant GM with three decades worth of experience as a scout and manager. He brought in a veteran scout with extensive knowledge of the WHL and overall, his scouts bring myriad experiences to the table.

They have been scouts, they have been coaches, they have been executives and they have canvassed different parts of the hockey-playing world.

“Experience is super important in scouting, but bringing in different ideas is also important,” Coyotes director of amateur scouting Darryl Plandowski said. “We’ve got that in our staff and I think we also have an open dialogue where nobody’s afraid to talk about a player that he thinks is good.

“Not all staffs are like that. Sometimes, it’s pretty locked down and some staffs are afraid to express their opinions. Guys aren’t afraid to talk to Bill about players. Everybody is allowed to bring different ideas so it’s a really positive and encouraging environment that I think is going to make us a better staff.”

COVID-19 has presented scouting challenges over the past the past two seasons, including league cancellations, game postponements and travel restrictions that impact live viewings, but with the 2022 NHL Draft less than seven weeks, the Coyotes staff is whittling down its draft board in what could prove to be a watershed event for the franchise. Arizona currently has seven picks in the first 45 overall selections, and 10 picks overall. We won’t have a legitimate evaluation of this draft for three to five years, but this is the amateur scouting staff’s first real opportunity to deliver on Armstrong’s promise.

“No pressure, no diamonds,” Armstrong said. “I can’t wait to get up there on stage. This staff has helped this organization already, just by doing little things. They’ve done a nice job of quickly inserting some players like the (JJ) Mosers of the world and getting them to play, and we’re excited about the (Dylan) Guenthers and (Josh) Doans coming along. Quickly, we’ve already made some steps, but this is going to be another step and it’s an important one. It’s like I’ve said from the first day I got here: ‘Just stack one good player on the next good player and everything will work out.’”

No. 13 overall pick Brandon Gormley poses on stage with Coyotes team personnel during the 2010 NHL Draft at Staples Center in Los Angeles on June 25, 2010. (Getty Images)

A dubious history

A detailed examination of the Coyotes draft history can only lead to one conclusion: It’s not a pretty picture. From 1996 to 2003, the Coyotes’ top overall pick in each of those drafts failed to make a significant mark at the NHL level, and four of them never played an NHL game.

In 1996, the Coyotes drafted Daniel Brière 24th overall, but traded him just before the post-lockout rules opened up the game and helped Brière become a star. In 2004, the Coyotes drafted Blake Wheeler fifth overall but couldn’t sign him. In 2007, they drafted Kyle Turris third overall but eventually traded him when his contract demands outstripped his on-ice performance.

There were some success stories along the way such as Martin Hanzal (No. 17 overall, 2005), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (No. 6 overall, 2009) and Clayton Keller (No. 7 overall, 2016), but the Coyotes have always been hampered by a critical lack of resources. 

In the early days of the franchise, it led to some disastrous picks such as Dan Focht (No. 11 overall, 1996), Patrick DesRochers (No. 14 overall, 1998), Scott Kelman (No. 15 overall, 1999) and Jakub Koreis (No. 19 overall, 2002). More recently, Henrik Samuelsson (No. 27 overall, 2012), Brendan Perlini (No. 12 overall, 2014) and Dylan Strome (No. 3 overall, 2015) were first-round misses.

The drafts under GMs Bobby Smith, Cliff Fletcher and Mike Barnett produced very few results, the tenure of John Chayka was criticized for being overly reliant on video scouting, and the tenure of Don Maloney was characterized by such comically poor resources that the franchise became too reliant on scouting services.

“We had a Czech guy that we were paying 30 grand to cover the whole European continent and the only reason he was working was because he would work for 30 grand,” Maloney said. “If I looked at my time here and you asked me, ‘What was the biggest regret?’ It was our drafting and development. If you don’t draft well, you don’t have the assets to get better and use better. 

“I know what other teams do with development. I don’t care what the payroll or the budget was. I should have demanded it. I should have been more forceful to say, ‘This franchise can’t prosper unless you draft properly and develop properly.’ Our development department was basically nobody and the drafting was always a challenge because we didn’t have enough scouts.” 

It would be an overstatement to suggest that Armstrong is flush with cash and resources. Owner Alex Meruelo suffered significant losses during the pandemic, to the point where he once remarked, “Every day I wake up, I lose money.” But Armstrong convinced ownership of the importance of investing in scouting and it was easy for him to do so because that area of the industry is where he cut his teeth for 16 seasons as a St. Louis Blues scout (2004-2010), director of amateur scouting (2010-2018) and assistant GM/director of amateur scouting (2018-20).

In that time, he contributed to, or oversaw the selection of players such as T.J. Oshie, David Perron, Alex Pietrangelo, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, Joel Edmundson, Jordan Kyrou, Tage Thompson and Robert Thomas. Many of those players helped the Blues win the Stanley Cup in 2019, but there were many misses along the way, too. Armstrong wanted a staff that had experienced the highs, the lows and everything in between.

“Missing on picks is a really hard thing,” he said, “but it’s going to happen and I think that’s part of the mentality you have to have as a scout. You put in all the extra work because you want to know in your heart that you’ve gone that extra mile to check everything, whether it’s going to visit a player at his house, going to meet a school teacher, spending that extra time with them or doing that extra research. When you get up on stage and you make that pick, you want to know in your heart that you know that player to the best of your ability.

“It gives you peace of mind to know that you’ve done everything that you possibly can. You have seen every game across the world where he’s played. You’ve done the homework on the video and the analytics and the background of the player. There is always going to be human error and you’re dealing with 17- and 18-year-old kids so it’s not a perfect world out there. As long as you know in your heart that you did all that you could do to find out every last thing about a particular player, you have peace of mind no matter what happens.”

Coyotes scout Teal Fowler replaced former Coyotes coach Dave King in 2009 as coach of Adler Mannheim in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL). Fowler was a coach or manager in the DEL from 2002-2018. (Getty Images)

Eclectic staff enriches perspective

The Coyotes amateur scouting staff hails from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives, which we discussed briefly above and will examine in detail when we profile many of the scouts over the next seven weeks.

Here is a look at the amateur scouting staff and their respective duties, with information provided by the Coyotes media relations staff.

NameTitleAmateur coverage/duties
Darryl PlandowskiDirector amateur scoutingOversees scouting staff, scouts worldwide
Ryan JankowskiAssociate director amateur scoutingOversees scouting staff, scouts worldwide
Cory BanikaAmateur scout, CanadaOHL, OJHL, Ontario high school/prep hockey
Randy HanschAmateur scout, CanadaWHL, BCHL, AJHL, MJHL, SJHL, Canadian universities
Kevin PedersenAmateur scout, CanadaWHL, BCHL, AJHL, MJHL, SJHL, Canadian universities
Kevin ThackerAmateur scout, United StatesQMJHL, some OHL coverage
Matt TieslingAmateur scout, United StatesNTDP, USHL, NCAA, NAHL and high/prep school teams
Rick ComleyAmateur scout, United StatesNTDP, USHL, NCAA, NAHL and high/prep school teams
Chris ButlerAmateur scout, United StatesNTDP, USHL, NCAA, NAHL and high/prep school teams
Luke Curadi Amateur scout, United StatesNTDP, USHL, NCAA, NAHL and high/prep school teams
Tyler BiltonAmateur scout, SwedenNationwide coverage including, J18, J20, Allsvenskan, SHL
Teal FowlerAmateur scout, central EuropeNationwide coverage in Germany, Czechia, Slovakia, Switzerland, Austria, etc.
Jani KiviharjuAmateur Scout, FinlandNationwide coverage including U20, Mestis, Liiga
Clay AdamsAmateur Scout, goaltendingWorldwide coverage
Magnus OlssonAmateur Scout, goaltendingIn-person scouting in Sweden; worldwide scouting via video 

Other Contributors
Bill Armstrong: GM, worldwide scouting
John Ferguson Jr.: AGM, worldwide scouting
Matt Perri: Director of analytics, collaborates with scouts
Kyle McDonald: Mental performance consultant, amateur scouting/draft
Vince Lodato: Director of player performance and well being
Joey Poljanowski: Manager hockey operations

Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong, director of amateur scouting Darryl Plandowski and associate director of amateur scouting Ryan Jankowski hold the jersey of ninth overall pick, Dylan Guenther, during the first round of the virtual 2021 NHL Draft on July 23, 2021. (Getty Images)

When Armstrong went searching for a director of amateur scouting, he had a profile in mind. He wanted somebody with experience, a proven track record of success, a reputation as a collaborator, and a work ethic that was widely respected in the scouting community.

“I didn’t want somebody that would come in here and run our scouting where it would have taken four years to figure out whether he was a good head scout or not,” Armstrong said. “When you’re around the scouting world, you know the guys in the industry that go to work. You know the guys that grind on it and have a philosophy and a theory and really work at it. Darryl was one of those guys. I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done in Tampa Bay and I know he was a big part of that because I have seen him on the scouting trail. To be able to get a guy from a winning franchise and bring him in right away, it was just huge.”

Armstrong didn’t stop there, however. The Sabres had just gutted their scouting staff, reducing its number from 21 to seven after missing the playoffs for a ninth straight season. That meant that Buffalo’s director of amateur scouting, Ryan Jankowski, was available, as were Sabres scouts Cory Banika and Randy Hansch.

If you ask Armstrong, he will tell you that he thinks Buffalo is very close to turning a corner and he thinks that its scouts did good work. He has great faith in Jankowski.

“I knew that I wanted to add Darryl but I thought to myself, ‘Good, gosh, if we can land these two guys with this type of experience, that would be huge for the organization because it would allow us to hit the ground running.’ We didn’t have to waste time trying to figure out if our guys knew how to be head scouts because they’ve done that. We were very fortunate that we were searching at the right time to be able to acquire two quality guys that had a wealth of experience.

“It’s like we put yin and yang together. Ryan’s really good at managing, he’s really good at the details, he’s really good at getting stuff organized for all the meetings and making sure the schedules work. Darryl is more about aligning players and making decisions and lists and examining our evaluations; that kind of stuff. They work really well together. Their personalities really complement each other and bring out the best in each other and I think their energy has filtered down to the staff.”

Like Plandowski, Armstrong sees the value in multiple perspectives, and he likes the idea of adding in some young fresh voices to his scouting staff. At the same time, experience has taught him that there is no substitute for, well, experience.

“To get good at scouting, it’s almost as if time stands still,” he said. “It takes a long time to develop the skills, but when you eventually can say ‘I’ve picked that one before’ as well as ‘I’ve picked somebody that hasn’t worked out,’ you really gain a tremendous amount of experience; sometimes more so on the ones you’ve missed.

“We’ve got guys that have been in the industry a while and have had a ton of success, but they’ve also made mistakes. They know why those happened so they can steer our staff away from making those mistakes. It’s just so crucial. Experience is a big part of scouting.”

Bringing a group of disparate voices and perspectives can be challenging, but Armstrong believes that the amateur scouting staff is at a point where it can execute the plan with clarity, thanks to consistent dialogue.

“You talk about your philosophy and what you want, but you also allow them to have input on that philosophy on what you’re looking for in players,” Armstrong said. “It’s not just talent levels, but also character and what the organization believes. It’s about instilling that in our scouts and then sending them out into the field while being organized in the field. If you do it right, you’ve got that hunter’s mentality, that hungry mentality as a staff where we’re out there to find players and everybody’s working together to do it.”

It hasn’t been easy in light of COVID-19’s myriad roadblocks.

“That’s why I’m spending about 25 days a month on the road trying to figure it out,” Plandowski said, laughing. “Ryan and I have been to Europe so many times this year that we’ve lived in Europe pretty much. I’ve got speeding tickets. I’ve got two insurance things on the go for cracked windshields and dents. I go home and all I do is deal with that stuff; trying to figure out how to pay my speeding tickets. It’s been crazy this year.”

Plandowski didn’t need to leave Tampa. He wanted a crack at the director’s chair, but there would have been other opportunities, given his success in building the Lightning into two-time defending Cup champs, mostly under GM Steve Yzerman’s leadership. Armstrong’s pitch and his experience as a scout were what sold Plandowski on Arizona.

“Steve Yzerman is a lot like Bill,” Plandowski said. “Whether it was extra firsts or extra seconds, we always seemed to have extra picks and those were years that Tampa was pretty good. 

“Steve just loved the draft and he wanted to build through the draft so it certainly helped us gather players and talent. It’s interesting because it’s very similar to Bill’s approach. He really believes in the importance of the draft to a team’s success and it’s hard to outwork the guy. When all the scouts see the GM working as hard as they are or harder, it makes them want to work hard. It sets an example for our staff.”

There are plenty of analysts who believe that the Coyotes have built the most complete and experienced scouting staff in franchise history, but as always, the proof will be in the picks. That process will begin in earnest on July 7 in Montréal.

“It really is exciting to finally get the ability to stack players,” Plandowski said. “As painful as things are right now, it’s a real chance to build something that’s different than the rest of the organizations; something sustainable. All of the top teams started somewhere. Ten to 15 years ago, Chicago started what they had. Pittsburgh started what they had through the draft. Tampa did it and now we’re planning on Arizona being the next team. 

“It might take a little time but once we get talent coming up — and it doesn’t necessarily need to be on your team right away  —  fans can follow our future. Over the next three years, our plan is to put talent and skill and skating into the lineup and I think fans will be able to get excited about that.”

Top photo: Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong, director of amateur scouting Darryl Plandowski and associate director of amateur scouting Ryan Jankowski (Getty Images)

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