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What's next for NHL Utah, which has more than $40 million in salary cap space? A conversation with Bill Armstrong

It's been nearly six weeks since the Coyotes moved to Utah.

Well, the roster and management moved, not the Coyotes name or brand.

For everyone involved, the situation was a blur, from NHL owner Ryan Smith of Utah to new general manager Chris Armstrong and, of course, members of the executive team, including general manager who moved with the team, Bill Armstrong.

“We were sitting there after dinner – after we had this big (arrival) event where all the fans came – someone said to us, 'You know, it's not even been a week since we played,'” Bill Armstrong said Tuesday. “It was just such a whirlwind. You were drinking from a fire hose.”

“It's kind of settled down and we're coming off all the big work and everything else. Now it's getting to hockey and getting ready for the draft, getting ready for free agency and getting everybody up and running in Utah and getting our facilities up and running. We're over the hump and now we're getting to work on hockey and that's the fun part.”

The front office is preparing for important organizational meetings in the next few weeks, ahead of the draft and free agency on July 1. Utah is expected to be an active franchise this offseason.

“We hold our (amateur) meetings here,” said Armstrong The athlete from Salt Lake City during a break in said meetings. “We're starting to get going, you know?”

The Utah ice hockey club will have a salary cap of over $40 million as of July 1, far more than any other NHL club.

“Pretty good, huh?” chuckled Armstrong, who was obviously forced into such things for financial reasons under the previous regime in Arizona.

The salary cap is largely due to the termination of the contracts of Jakub Voracek (salary cap of $8.25 million) and Bryan Little ($5.3 million).

Enough of that. It's time to fill out the roster with active players. It's time to add to the rebuild that's now entering its fourth year. Just because they have so much cap space doesn't mean they're going to spend like wild people, though.

“Our big goal is to relentlessly improve our team without sacrificing the future,” said Armstrong. “And that basically means making smart decisions that help our group grow. If we get good, these contracts can no longer be a burden.”

“Just because you have so much money doesn't mean you have to make bad decisions and add to your salary so that in five years when you need the cap space, you suddenly don't have it. So it's really important to make good decisions, healthy decisions that can help this group grow and improve the team without sacrificing the future.”

Reading between the lines, I think Utah will focus on signing shorter-term deals to unrestricted free agents in free agency to continue to bulk up the roster this summer and pay a little more salary. So one- to two-year deals. Maybe a two-year offer from Utah will be the same as the total that another team would offer for three years, etc.

The idea is not to tie up their payroll for the next three or four years when younger core players need bigger contracts.

It's about filling gaps as the younger players develop.

“We are still in growth mode,” Armstrong said.

However, their entire blue group has not yet signed a contract. There is still a lot of work ahead of them.

However, having a deep-pocketed and stable owner like Smith means Utah can now make decisions that best focus on growing this roster, rather than worrying about what the cheapest possible solution is.

Imagine this: stability.

Toto, we're not in Arizona anymore.

“It definitely gives you an opportunity to complement your younger players,” Armstrong said. “You can give them guys on one- or two-year deals that can really help them grow and help you be a more competitive team in the market.”

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And it's not just July 1. The Utah club also hopes to use its salary cap space in the offseason on the transfer market. Perhaps teams with salary problems can be trade partners.

“We can help them out and give them a pick in return, like we've done in the past,” Armstrong said, with the Sean Durzi trade with the Kings being a prime example. “There's going to be a lot of things coming our way simply because we can take cap dollars.”

As long as it doesn't hurt their future, Armstrong reiterated. But that doesn't mean they won't consider signing one or two key UFAs to short-term deals.

“There might be one or two guys that we think can help us long-term as well,” Armstrong said.

For Armstrong, the balance lies in sticking to the long-term plan and not being tempted to take tempting shortcuts just because his company is now financially stable.

“Sometimes you try to spice it up and do too much and then you get caught up in some of these deals and then you're pushed in a bad direction for sure,” he said. “We want to make sure we still stick to the vision we had at the draft. Grab a good player, stack him with another good player and keep going like that.”

The idea is to build a team that has the staying power once they arrive.

“We just have to set our goals realistically, right?” Armstrong said. “Yes, we are a good team. We certainly have seven players who have scored 20 goals. But we still have a lot of young players. If we can expand the free agents on defense and make some trades, we can improve our team.”

“But that doesn’t mean we’ll be fighting for the Stanley Cup next year.”

No, but they were on the brink for the first half of the 2023-24 season before collapsing in the final months. The distraction of the uncertain future of the organization in Arizona was definitely a part of that. That impacted the players greatly.

“Yup,” said Armstrong.

Everyone is in a much better mood now.

“I think that's a really positive light,” Armstrong said. “I think the fears have dissipated. The players are extremely excited to come and play in an NHL arena that's packed to the rafters with fans.”

“There is a lot of anticipation and excitement for our players to play here in Utah next year.”

(Photo by Bill Armstrong: Chris Gardner / Getty Images)

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