It didn’t take long for Arizona Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo to realize that Bill Armstrong was the right person to be his next GM.
“Bill doesn’t know this, but it was about 15 minutes into the interview,” said CEO Xavier Gutierrez. “Alex texted me and said ‘I would run through a wall for this guy.’ This was the right hire for us. He is an incredible person and he is a fit.”
And based on Armstrong’s introductory press conference, it’s not hard to see what Meruelo and Gutierrez were talking about. The Coyotes’ GM was both confident and passionate in his remarks, reiterating both his commitment to his new franchise and the commitment shown to him by ownership during the hiring process.
“I’ve won three different championships at three different levels in three different roles,” Armstrong said. “And I didn’t come all the way here to the desert to get a tan. I came to win a championship.”
If that’s not a great enough soundbite for you, Armstrong also mused about how beautiful the state of Arizona is – and the fact he will never bring it up again, especially when courting players. He wants them coming to the desert to win a title, not for the weather or golfing, and he plans on leading by example.
“I will see my house, my car and the office,” he said. “And not much of Arizona.”
Armstrong’s most recent title came as assistant GM/director of amateur scouting of the St. Louis Blues during that franchise’s march to the 2019 Stanley Cup (he also won a Calder Cup as an assistant coach with the 1999 Providence Bruins and a Memorial Cup as a defenseman with the Oshawa Generals). It was in St. Louis where he learned about the culture of collaboration with Doug Armstrong (no relation) and now he plans on bringing that concept to Arizona, where the Coyotes need help in a lot of areas.
For Armstrong, he believes he can turn things around both on and off the ice and getting the right personnel in place is crucial. The first domino to fall was director of amateur scouting Lindsay Hofford, who was fired today. Armstrong cited culture change in Hofford’s dismissal and after the Coyotes were sanctioned for illegally working out draft prospects this season, it was hard to see Hofford sticking around, especially with GM John Chayka already gone. During Chayka’s reign, respected veteran scouts such as Tim Bernhardt and Jeff Twohey were chased out of the organization and replaced by Hofford.
“The culture is going to change here,” Armstrong said. “It will shock some people, but it needs to happen.”
Don’t expect a complete housecleaning from the new GM, however. Armstrong cited assistant GM Steve Sullivan, special assistant Scott Walker and assistant to the GM Jake Goldberg as trustworthy stewards, while also noting that coach Rick Tocchet was an idol whom Armstrong is excited to work with.
Having said that, Armstrong does have some building to do off the ice and his background as a scout will certainly help. He’s a hockey guy that also loves numbers, so analytics will have a place in Arizona, to be used in conjunction with all the other tools that scouts must utilize to be successful in this modern era. If Armstrong can get his front office in order, then finding the right players to fill out the roster will become infinitely easier.
“We don’t just want good players,” he said. “We want players who will give first and second efforts; players that will bleed for the organization.”
Armstrong didn’t want to get too far into specific players in his introductory conference, as he has yet to have meaningful meetings with his hockey operations department, but it’s hard to look at the current roster and see a team that can compete in a Western Conference featuring Colorado (which destroyed Arizona in the playoffs this year), Vegas and an ascending Vancouver, among other squads. The Coyotes are surprisingly tight against the salary cap for 2020-21 and that’s without pending free agent Taylor Hall on the books. In all likelihood, some big moves will need to be made in order to improve the on-ice product.
At the least, Armstrong believes the franchise finally has an owner in Meruelo who is committed to spending the money to turn Arizona into a consistent winner and the Coyotes feel like they’ve got the right hire as their GM now.
“First, this guy is a hockey guy’s hockey guy,” Gutierrez said. “Second, this guy is a winner – that championship ring he’s wearing is exactly what we’re here for. And finally, he’s a leader and a man of integrity.”
Now it’s time for Armstrong to get down to work and build up a culture. Don’t bet against him.