© 2023 BSN LIVE, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
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 fourth 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. You can read the first, the second and the third stories in this series by following these links.
A decade ago, the Coyotes’ hockey operations budget was spread so thin that it operated with one 20-something, part-time scout in the Czech Republic who was tasked with covering all hockey-playing European nations.
Despite the ravages of COVID on owner Alex Meruelo’s various businesses, the Coyotes now boast six European based amateur scouts, a pair of directors and a lead goalie scout, all of whom have been provided the budget to continue traveling and cast eyes across a continent that is critical to building NHL success stories.
“(Associate director of amateur scouting) Ryan (Jankowski) and I have been to Europe so many times this year that we’ve lived in Europe pretty much,” said Coyotes director of amateur scouting Darryl Plandowski, who was leading the staff’s weeklong scouting meetings at owner Alex Meruelo’s Grand Sierra Resort in Reno, Nevada last week. “This year, there’s a lot of kids in Europe that we wanted to see and they’re all spread out so we decided to get over here and see the kids we need to see early. Usually, you come over for two weeks and then go home, but the schedule is good and they’re good, quality kids so we wanted to make sure we knew them really well.”
Plandowski and Jankowski have had plenty of help in their efforts.
In 2019, the Coyotes hired British Columbia native and Swedish leagues coach Tyler Bilton to scout Sweden.
That same year, they hired former Adler Mannheim coach and manager (and former DEL player) Teal Fowler. In his first season, Fowler moved to Finland to scout that nation’s leagues and prospects. In 2020, Fowler, who now lives in Heidelberg, Germany, was assigned to more familiar grounds, covering Germany, Switzerland, Slovakia, Austria and Czechia; countries where he helped identify JJ Moser and Karel Vejmelka.
In 2020, the Coyotes hired former TPS coach, manager and SM-liiga player Jani Kiviharju to canvas Finland.
That same year, they hired Magnus Olsson to serve as a European goaltending scout who reports directly to head goaltending scout Clay Adams.
The Coyotes obviously scout Russia and its surrounding nations as well, but that has become a more complicated process since Russia invaded Ukraine in February; a conflict that continues.
After a productive four-year career at Merrimack College, Teal Fowler played pro hockey in Germany for six seasons before moving into coaching as an assistant with the Iserlohn Roosters of the DEL.
In 2006, he was offered an assistant coaching position with Adler Mannheim, whose development program has produced such NHL stars as Leon Draisaitl, Moritz Seider and Tim Stützle. During the 2008-2009 season, he replaced former Coyotes assistant Dave King as Mannheim’s coach, and in 2010 he became the team’s manager.
“It was a good run,” he said. “I was able to win two championships, one as a coach and one as a general manager, but after that last year I had some time to reflect on my career and myself as a person. I always want to learn and the NHL was always a dream for me. I received a couple phone calls about possibly getting into scouting and using some of my knowledge as an ex-GM and coach.
“When we’re scouting in Europe, we’re taking their best players. We’re taking away from their product so that’s where the importance of having a history there, understanding the cultures, having relationships and being on the same page and understanding where the player is and how many years he needs to develop comes into play.”
Those experiences are part of what made Fowler so appealing to the Coyotes.
“You have a different perspective when you’ve coached and managed before,” Armstrong said. “You’ve seen things from different angles so you’re more informed about the big picture.
“When you put the right group together and people have different perspectives from all over the industry and the world, it allows you to look at a player in a lot different ways, with a lot of different eyes, to make sure that you have talked about all of his strengths and his weaknesses, and what he can improve and what he can’t improve.”
All successful scouting staffs will tell you that it’s important to have a clear vision of the types of players that the organization is seeking; a vision that comes from the GM. When the GM has been also been a scout however, as Armstrong was for nearly two decades, the entire operation has a more structured feel to it, Fowler said.
“I can’t stress enough how important it was to have Bill coming from the scouting area in building a clear identity of our vision for the Coyotes down the road,” Fowler said. “Darryl and RJ get tons of credit for the teamwork they have created and the ability that they bring, but that’s the backbone of our process. Bill’s experience allows him to support us, to talk things out, to collaborate and I would say the major change since he took over is the openness. I feel a part of the organization. He goes above and beyond to welcome us, including us in a lot of things.
“Sometimes the scouts can get separated and it’s every man for himself; just go out and find players. Everybody just assumes that it’s easy to do that but if you don’t have a clear path and the support line, you’ll never get there. You can get lost, but I think we have put together a process in a very short time that will allow us to be consistent in what type of players we want and that goes for how we want to play and all these other kinds of things that connect. Him having that experience, having success, and winning the Stanley Cup in St. Louis didn’t just come by getting the best players. It came by getting the right players and that’s something that we stress a lot.”
It also comes by leaving no stone unturned. Moser was on some teams’ radars but there was uncertainty about his offensive ability because he wasn’t being cast in those roles as a 19-, 20- and 21-year old in a man’s league in Switzerland. Those roles are often reserved for imports.
The Coyotes put in a lot of time scouting Moser — a fact that was noticed by some of the most prevalent scouting reporters — and it paid off when they drafted him in 2021 and he was able to make the leap to the NHL last season, amid injuries to the blue line, after just 18 games with Tucson of the AHL.
“Without the support and the investment and the resources from ownership in a year where teams had to make choices due to the pandemic, we wouldn’t have been able to do what we did,” said Fowler, who also played a major role in rediscovering Karel Vejmelka. “There were several teams in the NHL that made cuts in those areas and we were not one of those teams. We were hitting the road as if it was a normal year, trying to do the best we could. Without that allowance, and myself traveling to the Czech Republic to watch draft eligible prospects in Brno, I don’t know what would have happened.”
Jani Kiviharju was driving to a get-together with some buddies on a Thursday night two years ago when a Tampa-area number popped up on his phone.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m not gonna answer that because it’s probably some scammer who is going to take whatever last money I have,’” Kiviharju said, laughing. “Two minutes later, it was a Norwegian number calling me and I was still not gonna answer because now I was sure it was some cheater who’s trying to get my money.”
The former number was Darryl Plandowski’s. The latter belonged to Coyotes director of European pro scouting and development, Brett Stewart, who was trying to connect Kiviharju with Plandowski. The Coyotes were looking for a scout in Finland and Kiviharju came with the recommendation of Capitals AGM Ross Mahoney and Washington’s head amateur scout, Steve Bowman.
Kiviharju had played with TPS of the Finnish SM-liiga for eight seasons, and he had coached within TPS’s system for eight more.
“I know all the players born between 2001 and 2008 because I have been here a while,” he said. “I know who are the best players, where they come from, what is their situation. I have connections all over Finland.”
That is the only place where Kiviharju scouts, after taking over for Fowler. His scouting includes the U20 level, Mestis and the Liiga. Among the Finnish draft prospects he has scouted this season are Joakim Kemell, Brad Lambert and Slovakian born Juraj Slafkovský, who played for TPS.
“I probably saw somewhere between 100 and 150 games this past season,” he said. “A lot of times, it’s only me. Darryl, Ryan, Teal, Bill and Clayton have all been here in Finland with me, but there’s a lot of scouts in our staff that I will meet for the first time in Montréal at the draft.
“It’s a good challenge for us to find the right players to be a Coyote but we have a lot of picks. Many people are laughing at the Coyotes and what they are right now, but I really trust what we have. Bill Armstrong is a great leader, and Darryl and Ryan, too. I really trust the Coyotes’ future and what’s coming. It’s unbelievable. I think it’s gonna be a totally different story.”
In a nation that has produced more than 250 NHL players, the Coyotes finally have a native to scout it.
Tyler Bilton’s scouting career began with the USHL’s Tri-City Storm in 2014-15 season, but when it comes to diversity, Bilton has as many bullet points on his résumé as anybody on the Coyotes staff.
The former goaltender spent two years as an assistant coach for the University of Maine women’s team, he was the goaltending coach at Connecticut, Connecticut College, and with the Okanagan Academy in Austria where he also served as a scout. He spent three seasons coaching in Sweden with Ekerö and Rögle before the Coyotes hired him in 2019.
Bilton’s coverage in Sweden includes the J18, J20, Allsvenskan and SHL levels. Among the top Swedish draft prospects this season are goalie Hugo Havelid, defensemen Matias Hävelid, Elias Salomonsson and forwards Jonathan Lekkerimäki, Noah Östlund and Ludwig Persson.
Magnus Olsson is a holdover from Brian Daccord’s tenure as the Coyotes director of goaltending operations. Daccord left his post with the Coyotes after just one season, but Armstrong had great faith in Daccord so he kept Olsson onboard to assist Clay Adams with a position that is often undervalued in the scouting community.
Olsson is based in Gothenburg, Sweden. He runs Blue Crease Goaltending, a company similar in scope to Daccord’s Stop It Goaltending, if on a smaller scale. Olsson has worked with goalies at every level from youth to the NHL, the Allsvenskan and the DEL. He has also worked with Daccord at camps in North America and Europe, and he currently serves as the goaltending coach for the Graz 99ers in Austria’s elite league.
“My job will be to keep track of the European guys but also to bounce ideas about the other guys off of Clay and the others in the department,” said Olsson, who played the position, including a junior stint with the Truro Bearcats (Nova Scotia) of the MJAHL. “I am his extended arm, so to speak.
“Rather than Clay traveling all the way over here and spending all of that money on a guy we’re not sure about yet, the guy he’s interested in might be in my backyard in Sweden, or maybe in Finland or the Czech Republic or Russia. I speak Swedish, English, Norwegian, a little bit of German and Danish, not fluently but I get around.”
With the OHL bracing for one of its leanest NHL drafts in recent memory, European (along with USA NTDP and Western Hockey League) players could make up a large percentage of Coyotes draft picks this season and next season. The Coyotes scouting staff is convinced that it has put in the hours, viewings and research to give Arizona its best chance at success in what could be a watershed draft.
Top photo: Prague (Getty Images)