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Clayton Keller stood in front of his stall in the Coyotes dressing room, sweat still dripping from his brow as he faced a media scrum. About 20 minutes earlier, Keller had scored the shootout-winning goal in Arizona’s’ 1-0 victory against the three-time defending Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning at Mullett Arena.
When asked about the team’s seven-game point streak – now at eight, which is the second longest current streak in the NHL — Keller surprised reporters with his response.
“We got a good burst of energy there over the [All-Star] break,” he said, then laughed. “I’m sure the GM’s not too happy about it.”
The quote went viral. Whenever that happens, the interpretations flow freely and often flawed; mostly from people who weren’t there and don’t understand the context. Some laughed and left it at that. Some raised eyebrows, wondering if it was a shot at Bill Armstrong’s rebuilding plans. Some deemed it downright disrespectful; a sign that a rift had formed.
The comment came as no surprise to Armstrong. When Keller came off the ice after the game, he was fist-bumping everyone within reach. When he caught sight of his GM and Coyotes director of hockey operations and salary cap compliance David Ludwig, he smiled.
“Sorry, guys,” he quipped.
Everyone was in on the joke, even if they weren’t on the same page. That’s the reality of a rebuild. And rebuilds are a reality of modern-day sports. Escalating salaries and salary-cap gymnastics have heightened expectations for success, shortened patience on achieving it, and limited GMs’ abilities to construct and then keep winning teams together.
GMs know that they can’t win the Stanley Cup without elite players and plenty of depth so they position themselves to draft high for a few seasons while selling off players to acquire more draft assets.
They take the long view.
Players and coaches don’t care about rebuild plans. They are paid to win now and they never question their own ability to do so. It’s what got them to this level in the first place.
They take the immediate view.
Inevitably, that conflict of interest leads to internal friction.
It happened in the 2014-15 season. Then-GM Don Maloney assembled one of the worst rosters in Coyotes history because Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel were waiting at the top of the 2015 NHL Draft.
Then-coach Dave Tippett wanted better players. The divide soured what had been a terrific relationship and the IceArizona ownership group fired Maloney one year later.
The challenge for Armstrong will be to stay true to his vision without losing the room, losing his coaching staff, and maybe losing his job.
Maloney often left Tippett alone during that pivotal and pathetic season. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to talk to his coach. He just felt that there was nothing to say to a guy who had worked miracles from 2009-2012. A guy who couldn’t conceive of any goal other than winning. A guy who had his name bolted on the Jack Adams Award.
Maloney gave Tippett space out of respect and a little bit of sheepishness, but the lack of constant communication may have backfired.
André Tourigny does not have the same sort of coaching cachet as Dave Tippett. This is his first NHL head coaching gig. He took the job because NHL head coaching opportunities don’t come along too often, but he also took it with his eyes wide open, knowing what lay in store for him the next few seasons.
You want your coaches and players to be pissed off about losing. Always.
You want your coaches and players to dismiss notions of tanking. Always.
But NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is wrong when he says that teams don’t tank. Coaches and players don’t tank, but organizations do. They tank because it’s the best way to build sustainable success.
Take a look at the Stanley Cup winners over the past decade and a half. The Chicago Blackhawks missed the playoffs for five straight seasons and posted back-to-back point totals of 59 and 65. They also drafted Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith (earlier) and a whole lot of complementary players who helped them win three Cups.
The Pittsburgh Penguins did not appear in the playoffs from 2001-2006, finishing below 70 points in four straight seasons. They drafted Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and a whole lot of complementary players who helped them win three Cups.
The Tampa Bay Lightning bottomed out from 2007-2010, drafted Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov and then made it to three Cup finals, winning two.
The Kings did it with Anže Kopitar and Drew Doughty. The Capitals did it with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Bäckström and John Carlson. The Avs did it with Nathan MacKinnon, Gabe Landeskog and Cale Makar.
You might find another formula like one-time winner St. Louis. You might acquire key talent in trades such as Ryan O’Reilly, Justin Williams, Jeff Carter, Marian Hossa or Patrick Sharp. You might find some gems in the mid and late rounds such as Brad Marchand or Jonathan Quick, but the overwhelming evidence is clear. Teams that win Cups almost always have to go through a painful rebuild.
Bill Armstrong’s approach is the right approach. His coaches may not like it. His players may not like it, and some fans may not like it. That can make GM’ing a very lonely post, but don’t be fooled by modest points streaks. Don’t be fooled by the short-term successes of a flawed roster. Don’t be fooled by a prospect pool that shows promise but is far too shallow to sustain real success.
There are no guarantees in the draft lottery, and the Coyotes have not helped their odds with this current run, but recent history has proven one thing about Armstrong’s approach over and again: This is the way.
Top photo of Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong via Getty Images
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