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When Bill Armstrong began the arduous task of rebuilding the Coyotes nearly three years ago, some critics took aim at the first-time GM’s early work.
Argument 1: Stripping a team to the studs was the easy part. Anybody could do that.
Argument 2: Acquiring oodles of draft picks and pushing the team’s expectations five, six or seven years down the road was a thinly veiled attempt to lengthen his own timeline with the franchise.
Argument 3: Wearing matching suits to the draft with his scouts was clownish behavior unbefitting a professional team — especially one that was already under the microscope for a lot of unflattering reasons.
Argument 4: Assembling too good of a team during a rebuild defeated the purpose of a rebuild.
Let’s be clear. Nothing that Armstrong has accomplished in his first three years on the job was easy. Nothing is easy with this franchise anyway, but the tasks for Armstrong were tall.
Rebuttal 1: You can strip a team to its studs, but you have to acquire good assets in return. That means making shrewd and well researched trades. Compounding the challenge in Armstrong’s first season on the job was the fact that the Coyotes were without a pick in the first, second or third rounds of the 2020 NHL Draft, as well as the first round of the 2021 draft due to trades and NHL sanctions on the Chayka regime for illegally fitness-testing players before the scouting combine.
Armstrong got back into the first round in 2021 by trading Oliver Ekman-Larsson to Vancouver, and he just kept accumulating picks after that, with 12 in the first two rounds of the past three drafts, and 13 more coming in the first two rounds of the next three drafts.
Rebuttal 2: You can try to shorten a rebuild timeline through free-agent signings and other means, but rarely do those efforts produce good results unless you get a top-two pick who changes the trajectory of your franchise. Past editions of the Coyotes are proof that abandoning a rebuild midstream does not work, while the Blackhawks, Kings, Penguins, Capitals, Lightning and Avalanche all had much easier paths because they landed top-two prizes. Armstrong didn’t have that luxury so he had no choice but to play the long game.
Rebuttal 3: Showing solidarity with his scouting staff was a cool gesture from Armstrong (a longtime scout) for a critical and hard-working group of guys that too often gets overlooked. It was also a moment to have some fun in a league that is too buttoned up and serious. Nobody was harmed by the staff wearing matching suits. Go find a legitimate hill to die on.
Rebuttal 4: Finally, bringing good veterans in to shepherd younger players to NHL adulthood is never a bad idea, even if you don’t land the prized pick in a lottery system that does not offer good odds anyway.
“We looked at Bill’s body of work when it comes to building a hockey operations department across the board, whether it was roster building, scouting, coaching, player development, training, nutrition or the doctors,” said Coyotes president and CEO Xavier Gutierrez when explaining how Armstrong earned an extension on Wednesday that runs through the 2028-29 season. “He has been executing incredibly well on the strategic plan, which was to build a sustainable winner through a foundation of the draft.
“We think he did an incredible job of securing an historic level of draft assets and then selecting great players. When you think of Logan Cooley or Dylan Gunther, JJ Moser or Matias Maccelli — and that doesn’t even account for the players we drafted this past year — there’s literally a roster of names that we could list in terms of young players that we identified, we scouted, we selected [or extended] and we are now developing.”
For Armstrong, the extension provides an opportunity that he hoped he would have when he was hired.
“You want to finish what you started,” he said. “This contract allows me to do that.”
Let’s take a look at what Armstrong has accomplished so far, and what still lies ahead.
When Armstrong took over for John Chayka, he made some immediate changes, but he took a year to evaluate his roster and hockey operations staff before making even deeper cuts. He knew that the flat salary cap brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic would force a bunch of cap-strapped teams to shed payroll, making players available. He also knew that some of the players he had under contract would either not fit his long-term plans (Ekman-Larsson), or would not want to stick around for another reset (Darcy Kuemper, Jakob Chychrun).
Armstrong used all of that information and the leverage of cap space to acquire four extra first-round picks and 10 extra second-round picks and aging but culture-building veterans whose contracts were almost always palatable to a budget-conscious ownership group. Those extra draft picks have already produced prospects Daniil But, Conor Geekie, Maveric Lamoureux, Artyom Duda, Julian Lutz, Dylan Guenther, Josh Doan and JJ Moser to add to the Coyotes own selections of Dmitri Simashev, Michael Hrabal, Logan Cooley and Ilya Fedotov.
“I think in the last three years, we’ve had six draft picks in the first round, so that’s a pleasure to have, but there’s a lot of things that you go through that you forget about that we accomplished,” he said. “I think we got lucky on a couple of things with the flat cap not moving and people having to get rid of some salary. That really helped us out. We had some pain as we took on some bad deals, and unfortunately for our poor coach coming through the door after I hired him, but it allowed him to change our culture and demand more, and he’s done a great job with that.”
Nobody knows which of the Coyotes’ glut of prospects or picks will pan out, but by creating sheer volume among the top 60 picks, Armstrong improved the odds. So did his hiring of the most complete scouting and development staffs in franchise history. Those latter two areas were neglected by past ownership groups. Armstrong sold Alex Meruelo on the importance of investing in those areas.
Coyotes coach André Tourigny
André Tourigny was already considered an up-and-comer when Armstrong hired him. His work with Hockey Canada and his work in the QMJHL and OHL with younger players made him an attractive option for the Coyotes, who were obviously going young.
Like Armstrong, Tourigny still has much to prove as the Coyotes move into the next phase of their rebuild, but the early returns are so promising that the Coyotes awarded him with his own three-year extension earlier this summer. The team overachieved so much last season that Tourigny was being mentioned in the Jack Adams Award conversation for coach of the year.
Tourigny’s ability to get the most out of key players such as Clayton Keller, Lawson Crouse, Matias Maccelli, Barrett Hayton and JJ Moser is a positive development for the franchise, but so is his ability to develop genuine relationships. It’s obvious how much the players like playing for him, and that word has spread across the league, helping entice players such as Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker to sign here.
The self-preservation myth
Too many analysts do not listen to their own reasoning when critiquing Armstrong. You’ll hear both of the following takes from the same people. By shedding so many veteran players, acquiring draft assets and lowering expectations with a lousy roster, Armstrong kicked the can down the road to save his own skin. But he also made the roster too good too fast, thereby ruining the rebuild.
The two arguments do not co-exist well. More importantly, how can anyone look at the timelines of past Cup champs and suggest that a quicker fix was the solution? Unless you get Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in successive drafts, you’re probably in it for the long haul.
As for the acquisition of solid veterans such as Nick Bjugstad, Troy Stecher and now Dumba, Zucker and Alex Kerfoot, those same critics who worry about the team being too good will tell you that you need good veterans to lead the way, lest you become the Edmonton Oilers of the 2010s.
There were other realities to consider in the free-agent moves this summer. Core players such as Keller and Crouse signed on for the long haul, believing that the team was heading in the right direction before the failed Tempe arena vote. While Armstrong could have forced those players to endure more bad contract acquisitions and more losing because they were under contract, that is not the way to build a good reputation as an organization, or to get the most out of your players.
Managing is not a black and white profession. It requires compromise, concession and adaptation. Armstrong has learned this on the fly, but he has learned it quickly and he has been willing to adapt to the changing needs of his job and environment.
Coyotes cap management
This will become a greater challenge when some of the top prospects emerge from their entry-level deals, but look at the Coyotes’ cap situation right now and try to find a bad contract. You can’t because one does not exist.
You can attribute part of that reality to the tight budget under which the Coyotes operate, but it’s still difficult to navigate that situation and construct a roster. Armstrong and director of hockey operations and salary cap compliance David Ludwig deserve an enormous heap of praise for managing the cap under such tight (and logical at this point of the rebuild) constraints.
They also deserve praise for extending players such as Maccelli, Jack McBain, Connor Ingram and Juuso Välimäki this year on reasonable deals.
What’s ahead for Coyotes, Armstrong
While Armstrong has accomplished almost everything he was asked to accomplish at this stage of the rebuild, the real proof will come in the next two, three or four seasons of his contract. It won’t be enough to take steps toward a postseason berth anymore.
He is not hiding from that reality.
“Success for myself and the franchise is taking some small steps this year to become a better team, which also allows us to buy some time for our younger players… allowing them to kind of mature and then eventually join our team in three years,” he said. “Where we want to get to, obviously this year, is to improve and then the following year, really push to make the playoffs.
“So where I’ll measure success is probably in two ways. Can we get in in the next few years, and then the next part of the success is, are we a team that you can say, ‘Okay, every year, these guys should get in.’ As long as we continue to grow and move forward and allow our younger players to get in there and our team gets better and better, that’s how I’ll measure success.”
Top photo of Bill Armstrong via Getty Images