As the off-season commences, General Manager Bill Armstrong and a number of Coyotes players held exit interviews to review the 2020-21 season, discuss summer plans, and look ahead.
Conor Garland: A 'Primary' Source of Offense
Michael Bunting: Proved He Belonged
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"Exit day" for Bill Armstrong means an entry into a busy off-season, including finding a new head coach.
The Coyotes General Manager began his Monday press conference by addressing the mutual decision to part ways with Rick Tocchet. The news was announced Sunday.
"That was a tough decision," Armstrong said about Tocchet, who coached the Coyotes for four seasons.
"Rick Tocchet's a good coach, he's a good man," Armstrong said. "I guess, at this point in time, the easiest way to say it is that we were looking for new leadership and a new voice. A hard decision, but one that had to be made.
"It's hard not to like Rick. He's a hockey man, he's very passionate about what he does, he's a competitor. I grew up kind of idolizing him because of how hard he played and how great he played. My opinion of Rick has only grown. He's a good man, and a good coach."
The search for a new head coach begins immediately. Armstrong says he will continue to analyze the rest of the coaching staff, but trusts everything will fall into place once the successor is hired.
"(Hiring) a coach will be our biggest, greatest, most important thing we can do all summer," Armstrong said. "We're looking for a young coach who's going to put us over that hump. Somebody's who's got a little bit of push, some accountability with a good structure to how he wants the team to play."
The greatest advantage Armstrong might have this off-season is time.
"I'm excited about that," he said. "I felt like coming through the door, there was a lot going on, and it was just one thing after the next. I think for me, it's a little bit of time to reflect here and finish out the plan that we'd started. And now you can organize your time and go at it instead of being under the gun 24/7."
Armstrong faced a difficult situation when he was hired in September, 2020. And it was less than three weeks prior to the NHL Draft, in which he could not participate because of an agreement between the Blues and Coyotes prior to his hiring. It was determined that his scouting work for St. Louis was the intellectual property of the Blues.
Armstrong will conduct his first draft as Coyotes GM this summer, July 23-24. The Coyotes have two, second-round selections, No. 38 and No. 44. The others are: Two fourth-round picks (No. 108 and 125); a fifth-round pick (No. 140), and a sixth-round pick (No. 172).
The following Q&A is from Armstrong's exit-day media interviews:
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Your first season as General Manager is in the books. What was the most challenging part, and the most rewarding?
I want to fix everything as soon as I get here, and that's probably the most frustrating thing. There are some things that you just can't untie that take a little bit of time and patience. So, I think for us and the fan base, we've got to be a little patient. When you show up to the party and there are no first-round (draft) picks, it's going to take a little bit of time to accumulate and get some prospects underneath our belt.
I think just being a part of the team and getting them to the point where we almost got into the playoffs was probably the most rewarding. Through the injuries, we were on our fourth goaltender. I think the exciting part was some of the depth that we had, that we didn't know was there. Bunting, Hill, jumping in the net, Ivan (Prosvetov) played a game. There was a lot more depth in the organization than I had thought. They came up and gave us a really good look and a chance to get into the playoffs.
What qualities are you looking for in a new head coach?
We need a little push in certain ways. (When we were building a foundation in St. Louis), Ken Hitchcock, at the time, was our guy. He kind of took that group to a new level and pushed them to get over the hump. The (players) didn't always like it at times, but I thought he showed up to the party with a little something. If you go back, the group in St. Louis, they would probably credit him with getting over the hump. He pushed those guys to the next level.
Can Shane Doan be a resource (in the search for a new head coach)?
Absolutely. Shane's been involved with the NHL as a player, and obviously at another level working for the NHL. And he's always been involved with Team Canada, like he is now. He will continue to be involved in this process just because of the simple fact he knows our core, he has a good idea of what we need, and he's a tremendous resource.
How would you summarize everything you saw with this group this year?
I think on the positive, the group fought all year to stay in the playoff race. I liked the fact that we didn't roll over. There were times we could have just packed it in, but we found ways to come back. So, I liked that from the group. There were some key games down the stretch, one being in LA up 3-1 and the two games in San Jose we didn't win. I think the disappointing fact is that we had a schedule that allowed us a chance to get in and we didn't capitalize on some of those opportunities.
Where do you start in prioritizing free agency, re-signing players, etc.?
It starts a little bit in the end-of-season meetings, in the next few weeks, talking to the players and the agents. For the guys that are here, it's about finding out if they have some interest in coming back and joining us. There are some holes we have to fill with this organization, and we're going to do it by re-signing a few of our guys that are free agents, but also getting into the free agent pool and making sure we find the right guys that will provide some identity. I was happy with the group, the Johan Larsson's and the Tyler Pitlick's from last year. There are some key core guys that we've added into the mix, and we're looking to do the same thing in free agency this year.
How close is the team to breaking through for the playoffs?
We're close. We've got some work to do. I think at the core, they've really got to focus in and push themselves this summer. I think the summer will have a lot to do with how far we can go next year. I think just looking at our team, if you look at who we're playing against next year, it's a tough, tough division to play in and it's going to be a battle every single game. So, I think with the core right here, we're going to need a good off-season in the free agent market in trying to fill some of the holes, along with our core having a great summer to train and get bigger, stronger, faster. But at the same time, you look who we're playing against; we're going to be right in the thick of things again, probably the same place we were this year, fighting for a playoff spot.
Despite missing the playoffs this year, how did this organization move forward?
I thought we became a little more competitive. When we were down a few goals, we didn't roll over, I think we can add more of that. The one huge, mega-bright spot was Jakob Chychrun. I think his play moved us forward. You could see the growth in his game, and the amount of offense he created from the back side was incredible. He stepped forth. So, I think there were small little victories and a big victory in Jakob Chychrun's play. Also, finding guys out of the minors like Michael Bunting who jumped onto our roster and was an impact player and had 10 goals. I think those are some of the bright spots we have. Victor Soderstrom, he spent a year in the minors and you could see when he came up he had improved a lot. He's going to have an opportunity to make our club. Jan Jenik is a big, competitive forward. He drives the bus in a lot of different ways and he's showing you what the new-look Coyotes are going to come with, a little bit more competitiveness. So, there were some bright spots that kind of shined throughout the end of the season.
What do you expect Michael Bunting, Conor Garland, Adin Hill and Darcy Kuemper to get from their World Championship experience?
The World Championship doesn't work for everybody. Sometimes you've got injuries, or you need some rest, or you need some more time to put some muscle on your body. But for some players who haven't played a lot, or they need to get that competitive fire and a little bit of pressure, it can really help them. So, it really depends on the player. I'm excited that (Kuemper) is going to go over there and play for Canada along with Garland and (Hill). It will give those guys a chance to take a step forward. Bunting is going over there too. He's jumped on the scene. And that's going to help him play with some elite players."
Photo Credits: Norm Hall - Arizona Coyotes