Clayton Keller Utah Ceremony

SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah has high hopes for its first NHL season and confidence it can build a winner over the long term. But there is a lot of work to do.

"I do believe we're a playoff team," forward Clayton Keller said in a press conference at Delta Center on Wednesday. "We have a lot of great players in all positions, and we have depth, and I think we're a fast, skilled team, and we can play with anyone when we're playing our best.

"And I think that's super exciting to have some hopefully new free agents here as well, guys (who) want to sign here. We're super excited. It's going to be a great place to play. I think, yeah, we're only going to keep going upwards. We definitely have a super exciting young team."

The NHL Board of Governors voted April 18 to establish a new team in Utah, which will acquire the hockey assets of the Arizona Coyotes.

Utah gets a head start compared to an expansion team from a hockey standpoint. Arizona missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs the past four seasons and 11 of the past 12, but the team was rebuilding under general manager Bill Armstrong, who took over Sept. 17, 2020. The executives, scouts, coaches, players and prospects come intact, plus future draft picks, which include 20 in the first three rounds over the next three years.

Arizona had one of the lowest payrolls in the NHL, and a big question is whether Utah owners Ryan and Ashley Smith will spend more. Armstrong said they haven't had the chance to dig into that yet, because everyone has been getting to know each other and dealing with the transition.

"That's something we're going to move towards down the line," Armstrong said. "We've got a young team, a talented team. But truth be told, we're in the fourth year of the rebuild, so what fans are going to get from this team is an exciting, young team that can score goals."

Armstrong pointed out the Coyotes had six 20-goal scorers last season. He said they were inconsistent due to their youth but competed hard.

"It's an exciting team to watch," he said. "It's not a perfect team. It's not going to be ranked as one of the Stanley Cup favorites. But it's going to get there eventually. It's only a matter of time."

Armstrong said the hockey operations department is taking it day by day, juggling the transition with preparing for the NHL Draft, free agency and potential trades. Arizona acquired defenseman Sean Durzi from the Los Angeles Kings on June 24 for a second-round pick in the upcoming draft. Utah could do similar things this offseason.

"The amount of picks that we have, that gives us options to go out and buy players like we did with Durzi and address some of the needs of the team with picks, or we can go and pick," Armstrong said.

"It can be a little bit overwhelming, because obviously you throw the move in there. But what's coming our way with the draft and that, those are exciting times for us, and adding more prospects to this organization is a great thing and will give us a chance be a championship team in the future."

In the short term, Utah needs to build a hockey locker room at Delta Center, arrange for a place to practice at a local rink nearby, and move 70 people and their families from Phoenix to Salt Lake City. Armstrong called the young team a "baby factory." The families need houses, schools, doctors.

In the long term, Utah needs to renovate Delta Center, which will host 16,200 for hockey next season, with 12,000 unobstructed seats, and eventually more than 17,000 for hockey. It needs to build a permanent training facility. Smith Entertainment Group has a vision and preliminary plans, but everything needs to be finalized and executed.

The hope is that this experience will bring everyone together. It's like 70 people getting traded to the same place at the same time, with a lot of help from the organization and enthusiasm from the fans. Utah has 29,000 season-ticket deposits and drew 12,400 to a welcome event at Delta Center on Wednesday, with hundreds, if not thousands, who couldn't get inside before the organizers had to cut it off.

"I talked to a couple GMs that have been through the process with expansion," Armstrong said. "If you use the process right, as a group you're going to get tighter. You're going to become more as one, because you're going through the same thing."

Forward Lawson Crouse said the players have had brief conversations about it.

"One thing that we've [taken] pride in in Arizona was building the right culture," he said. "We now get to bring that here. We love each other in our locker room. We have great staff, great coaches, great management, and we're just so proud to be here. We're really looking forward to it."

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