NHL GMs, Beware: Utah Could Disrupt Your Off-Season Roster Plans

nhl gms, beware: utah could disrupt your off-season roster plans

Elias Lindholm and Logan Cooley Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

If Bill Armstrong is prepared to handle the seismic change in his career prospects this summer, he could emerge as the kingmaker of free agency.

After four years as the GM of the penny-pinching Arizona Coyotes, Armstrong will oversee the first off-season for the NHL’s new franchise in Utah with just about as much roster flexibility as the Vegas Golden Knights and Seattle Kraken had when they came in as expansion teams.

He won’t go through an expansion draft, but he has just 23 players under contract for next season across the NHL and the minor leagues. He also holds the rights to many more, including quality RFA defensemen J.J. Moser and Sean Durzi and center Barrett Hayton.

According to PuckPedia, Armstrong also has more than $40 million in salary cap space available, based on the projected ceiling of $87.7 million.

New Utah owner Ryan Smith has pledged to make Salt Lake City a desirable destination for players, both on and off the ice. And after spending the last three years with the Coyotes, pending UFA Liam O’Brien was the first to let it be known that he’d like a job in the Beehive State when he introduced himself to the arena full of supporters at the team’s welcome rally in April.

The NHL leader in penalty minutes in 2023-24, O'Brien has been playing for the league’s minimum salary and should be an easy signing.

Utah’s forward group already included talented stars like Clayton Keller and Logan Cooley, but the defense is virtually a blank slate, with not a single blueliner currently under contract for next season.

If he chooses, Armstrong is in a perfect spot to outbid other teams for one or more of the quality UFA defensemen who could come to market — a list of names that is led by Brandon Montour and also includes shutdown aces like Dylan DeMelo and Chris Tanev along with power-play specialists like Shayne Gostisbehere and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

If Armstrong does decide to enhance his forward group, look for him to go after a center. If he sparks a bidding war, that's great news for the agents of Elias Lindholm and Chandler Stephenson, this summer's two top NHL UFAs down the middle.

And Utah is not limited to going after free agents. After making 22 picks in the last two drafts alone, they’ve got prospects a-plenty at every position. Trade partners who are looking even further into the future can take their pick from 33 picks spread over the next three years, including 10 second-rounders and seven thirds.

Last summer, Armstrong showed he had the wherewithal to exploit other teams' problems when he deftly pried Durzi out of cap-strapped Los Angeles for the bargain price of a second-round pick.

This summer, he could even adopt the old adage that winning teams are built from the back end out and chase a Jacob Markstrom or a Linus Ullmark to form a Grade A goalie tandem with Connor Ingram.

Bottom line: Armstrong won't be taking on contracts of players on long-term injured reserve this summer. In fact, since he'll no longer need the last two years of Shea Weber’s cap hit of $7.8 million to reach the cap floor, even that contract could be a useful trade asset when talking with cap-strapped GMs looking to manufacture more space. Julien BriseBois, is that you in Tampa Bay?

With the NHL's salary cap finally rising significantly after years of pandemic suppression, hockey fans were already looking forward to a free-spending summer. Smith’s eagerness to put a competitive product on the ice in Salt Lake City this fall should make the off-season that much spicier.

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