Inside Bill Armstrong’s plan to build the Coyotes into a top contender

NHL

The first thing one notices about Bill Armstrong is the ring.

The one with 282 diamonds and 51 sapphires, for a total weight of 10.6 carats. The one with the St. Louis Blues logo resting on the Stanley Cup, with each round of their 2019 championship journey etched inside the band. The one Armstrong wore on his right hand during his introduction as the Arizona Coyotes‘ new general manager, with the subtlety of a Times Square billboard.

“It’s a little blinding over here,” joked Coyotes CEO Xavier A. Gutierrez, seated next to Armstrong. “This guy is a winner. What’s sitting on his finger, that championship ring for the Stanley Cup, is exactly what we’re here for.”

Armstrong acknowledged that the fashion choice was intentional.

“Whenever you take over a job, you get a chance to make a first impression. So there’s no doubt in my words and my tone: We’re here. We’re ready to do business. And we’ve got some things to turn around. It’s like being in a war every day here, and you’ve got to do things properly,” he told ESPN recently.

Gutierrez considers Armstrong the field general they need.

“He’s a leader. He’s the hardest-working person you will meet and absolutely the right person to create the winning culture here,” Gutierrez said.


When it comes to team culture, it’s hard to find two organizations more diametrically opposed than St. Louis and Arizona. The Coyotes’ five-game loss in the Western Conference quarterfinal was their first appearance in the postseason since 2012 and just their fourth in 17 seasons. Armstrong, 50, joined the Blues in July 2004 as an amateur scout before being named director of amateur scouting in 2010 and assistant GM in 2018. During his time there, the Blues made the playoffs in 10 of 16 seasons and won their first Stanley Cup in 2019.

The reason for that success is as glaringly obvious as the ring on Armstrong’s finger: 15 players on the Blues’ playoff roster in 2019 were drafted by the team. Some were top prospects, like captain Alex Pietrangelo, who was drafted fourth overall in 2008. Most were the product of the scouting department’s work deeper in the draft: Witness defenseman Colton Parayko going 86th in 2012, and goalie Jordan Binnington going 88th in 2011.

The Coyotes are the opposite: Just six of their current players were drafted by the team.

Because of that draft success, Armstrong’s name had been in circulation for top-level jobs for a while; spend any time at something like the Traverse City prospect tournament, and you wouldn’t have to listen very long to hear someone saying Armstrong has the goods to be a GM. He worked for years with respected front-office executives like Blues GM Doug Armstrong — no relation — as well as former GM and current senior adviser Larry Pleau and director of hockey operations Dave Taylor.

“The Blues were a good place to grow up,” Bill Armstrong said.

He attracted interest from teams for their general manager jobs, and he interviewed for the Florida Panthers‘ vacancy this season. “You never really expect when you go into the interview process to get it on the first go-around. It’s pretty complex. I mean, they’re interviewing for the leader of the pack, you know what I mean?” Armstrong said.

He remembers feeling comfortable in an interview with another team when he realized that he had served in so many different roles in hockey that he “could sit in any room” in the building, whether it was with the coaches or executives or scouts. “I’ve even sold tickets during the summer,” he said with a laugh.

The process also forced Armstrong to get his thoughts about running an organization down on paper for the first time. It’s one thing to think about free agency or trades in the moment. But when someone asks for a five-year plan, it puts everything into focus.

“I was literally in my office for two weeks and didn’t come out,” he said. “It was the greatest thing I’ve ever done. It enabled me to walk through the door here and say, ‘We’ve got a plan here, boys.'”

The “boys” include Gutierrez, owner Alex Meruelo and his son, Alex. Jr., who are the managerial brain trust of the team. Meruelo has officially owned the Coyotes for just over a year. The team has frequently been in the news for off-ice issues: The contentious split with former GM John Chayka, late payments to the operator of their arena and late bonus payments to players. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently praised Coyotes ownership for giving the team stability, chalking up the financial hiccups to their learning curve.

Armstrong pushed back on any criticism of Meruelo as an owner. “He’s a good owner. It’s a misconception, because I’ve met the man,” he said. “Think about this: He owns a bank. You’ve gotta be a pretty trusted guy to own a bank. He owns two casinos with casino licenses. Those are hard to get. They don’t give those away to the average person. And the NHL gave him a team. You’re not talking about an average Joe here. Let’s get this straight: This guy is a businessman and he’s good at what he does.”

As general manager, Armstrong said part of his job is as a conduit between ownership and the happenings in the NHL.

“They’re people that are open to learning and investing the NHL. And they need somebody to sandwich between NHL and them. And that’s what I do,” he said. “I can tell them, this is what you need and what you don’t need. This is smoke, and this is gold, you know what I mean? They needed somebody to not only set the structure up and make sure it’s a well-run team, but to filter the other information.”

Armstrong is all about that structure. It starts with the right staff around him. Darryl Plandowski is the new director of amateur scouting, coming over after 11 years with the newly crowned Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Ryan Jankowski, formerly of Hockey Canada and the Buffalo Sabres, is the new associate director of amateur scouting. Brian Daccord was hired as director of goalie operations. It’s a continued investment by ownership in hockey operations, and a chance for Armstrong to build his cabinet.

“The one thing I felt comfortable with in taking this job is that having been in the field, I understand all the good scouts in the world. From here to Russia. Professional and amateur. It really helps me behind the scenes,” he said. “If you look at a GM that gets let go, it’s because they didn’t have the players or, a lot of the time, because they didn’t have the right people around them. I’m not guessing. I know those people out in the world that do a really good job. We’re moving in the right direction.”

Plandowski had known Armstrong for some time. “He started at the ground floor, so he knew what he was after. His vision is to build through the draft and have people involved with the scouting. Draft good people. That’s what we’ve been doing in Tampa,” Plandowski told ESPN this week.

Plandowski said that Armstrong’s optimism and determination in making Arizona a winner is what drew him to the gig.

“That’s what sold me on Bill. When I first talked to him, I was like, ‘You have no draft picks, some of your defensemen are getting old,’ and other things. But Bill can really switch that around on you quick,” Plandowski said with a laugh. “He’s a positive guy. And in a business that’s not always that positive, it’s nice to talk to a guy that’s positive. He sees the positive in people and the positive in players. He keeps it fun.”

As Plandowski noted, they take over the Coyotes at a difficult juncture. Star winger Taylor Hall, acquired in a trade last December, is an unrestricted free agent and sources tell ESPN that the chances are slim he remains in Arizona. The Coyotes have just over $1.1 million in space under the flat $81.5 million salary cap, which is one reason defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson (with a contract worth $8.25 million in average annual value) is rumored to be available.

The Coyotes don’t have a pick until the fourth round, No. 111 overall, in next week’s NHL draft, thanks to trades and the forfeiture of their second-round pick for violating the NHL’s combine testing policy. They also lost their first-round pick next season.

(As per agreements for their releases from their previous employers, neither Armstrong nor Plandowski will run the draft for the Coyotes.)

The task is daunting, but Armstrong is up for it. Flashing the championship bling during his introductory news conference, he dropped one of the most striking thesis statements of any recently hired NHL executive:

“I didn’t come all the way to the desert to get a tan. I came here to win a championship.”

He FaceTimed his son Jamie, a sophomore forward at Boston University, after delivering that line. The response was an eye roll, although the younger Armstrong admitted that “my buddies loved” the tan line.

“Oh, I was on,” Armstrong said he told his son, with a laugh. “All fired up. I’m ready to rock and roll.”

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