The Coyotes made it official: Bill Armstrong, formerly of the Blues, is now their new general manager.
“We are thrilled to name Bill as our new GM,” said Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo. “Bill is smart, honest and hard-working and he knows how to build a winning team. He brings the right mix of hockey knowledge, business acumen and leadership qualities that we need in order to achieve our goal of bringing a Stanley Cup to Arizona.”
In naming Armstrong, the Coyotes ended a whirlwind span that began with John Chayka’s messy exit, and included Steve Sullivan pitching in as interim GM.
Frankly, Armstrong has his work cut out for him. If you ask me, the Coyotes’ GM job is arguably the toughest in the NHL, if not all of major professional sports.
But we’ll get to that. Let’s start with the question many are asking: “Who is Bill Armstrong?”
Who is new Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong?
The Philadelphia Flyers drafted Armstrong in third round (46th overall) in 1990, but the defenseman peaked in the AHL. You can check out more about his playing days at HockeyDB, complete with his then-vaguely-Todd-Bertuzzi-like visage.
Armstrong joined the Blues organization as an amateur scout in 2004. Then, in 2010, Armstrong rose to the level of director of scouting. By 2018, Armstrong became assistant GM to Doug Armstrong.
That’s a lot of experience in a quality NHL front office. As much as the Ryan O'Reilly trade pushed the Blues to a higher level, this team was largely based on drafting. And aside from a stray Alex Pietrangelo (No. 4 overall, 2008), the Blues haven’t enjoyed many high first-round picks in recent years. If they even held onto their first-rounders.
It’s often difficult to tell how much credit you should assign to any single member of a front office, but Bill Armstrong played a role into building the Blues into a Stanley Cup winner and regular contender. For the Coyotes’ sake, let’s hope that Bill Armstrong had almost as much to do with that success as GM Doug Armstrong did.
One of the toughest jobs in hockey, if not sports
Even if Bill Armstrong has been dreaming about being an NHL GM for decades, the Coyotes might just present a “be careful what you wish for” situation. Consider:
• A turbulent financial situation, even in stable times
Coyotes fans will groan about arena and money talk, and understandably so. But this Coyotes team has faced relocation or other threats for so long, it’s difficult to remember if things were ever easy.
Now throw in the COVID-19 curveball that might leave even the most lavish teams buckling at their knees. Where does that leave the Coyotes, from a financial standpoint? We can only guess.
But what we do know is that their salary structure isn’t exactly like an oasis in the desert. The best news for Armstrong is that Cap Friendly estimates their actual salary expenditure at about $61.45M for 2020-21, versus a bloated team cap hit of $80.4M. With that only covering 17 roster spots, it’s a mess either way.
Unless something unexpected happens with Taylor Hall, the Coyotes don’t really have big-money players to retain, at least. That’s about the only solace on a bloated roster that leaned extremely heavily on its goalies the past two seasons (something that was on display as they collapsed around Darcy Kuemper during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs).
• Not much bang for your buck, either
“You get what you paid for” doesn’t really apply to the Coyotes.
Either they’re getting great returns from Kuemper and/or Antti Raanta (when healthy), and the occasional Conor Garland, or they’re paying huge prices for the likes of Phil Kessel, Derek Stepan, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
Frankly, John Chayka left Bill Armstrong with a mess to clean up as GM, even just from a salary structure standpoint. And then we remember …
• Why it doesn’t make sense for the Coyotes to tank
… Just how many picks Chayka burned on his way out the door.
The NHL ruled that the Coyotes must forfeit their 2020 second-round pick and 2021 first-rounder for violating the league’s Combine Testing Policy. That would already be a devastating blow to the Coyotes’ futures, and then you realize they coughed up their 2020 first-round pick to New Jersey in the Taylor Hall trade.
Sometimes it’s OK to “go for it,” but between the Hall rental and that astounding player-testing blunder, Bill Armstrong begins his work as Coyotes GM without his first-round picks in both 2020 and 2021. The Coyotes aren’t slated to pick until the fourth round in 2020.
Considering the Coyotes’ cap/salary woes — and their middling results despite heavy spending — there’d be some logic in blowing things up and rebuilding … if they had those picks.
Instead, the Coyotes have little incentive to tank, but also possible (and understandable) pressure from ownership to cut costs. Brutal.
• Bill Armstrong will need to be creative, shrewd, and yes, lucky
This doesn’t mean the Coyotes are doomed. It just means that Bill Armstrong has his work cut out for him. (Honestly, even if Steve Sullivan stings at not getting the bump up to actual GM, can you blame him if he uttered a sigh of relief?)
There are some creative ways to work around limitations.
Consider players with higher cap hits than salaries for 2020-21.
As an example, Bill Armstrong could initiate some “You scratch my back, I scratch yours” work with Doug Armstrong of the Blues. Maybe St. Louis could send an asset to Arizona for, say, absorbing some or all of Alexander Steen‘s $5.75M cap hit? Steen’s base salary is $3.5M for 2020-21, so one can imagine how everyone might win.
Now, ideas like these revolve around incremental victories. Grinding away at the margins to try to find value (and, frankly, make up for some of Chayka’s follies).
We don’t know much about Bill Armstrong as a GM yet, but we’ll find out a lot thanks to the monumental task of fixing the Coyotes.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.