Quentin Batalillon

General News 2024

Will Utah Hockey Club sign a star forward?

The team has over $40 million in cap space, but patience may still be the key to the game.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bill Armstrong, general manager of the Utah NHL team, left, and head coach André Tourigny answer questions during a press conference at the Delta Center on Wednesday, April 24, 2024.

The National Hockey League takes place this weekend in Las Vegas, on the city’s most spectacular stage, the Sphere. A number of stars will become available on Monday when the league opens its free agency period.

The Utah Hockey Club – with new fans and a new owner to please – will have the most cap space in the NHL: worth more than $40 million.

With that kind of money and against that backdrop, it would be so easy to go all in.

It would be so obvious. It would be so expected.

It wouldn’t be Bill Armstrong either.

“It’s our fourth year of rebuilding,” the team’s general manager said this week. “Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.”

Life is different for the GM right now, but the work remains the same.

See, Armstrong finds out he’s a minor celebrity in Utah. People wave at him on the streets around Salt Lake City, he says. When an Uber picks him up, they know who he is. He says that didn’t happen in Arizona; there were more people in the desert, but more eyes on everything else.

There’s no doubt about it: Utahns are firmly focused on their new major league pastime and the soon-to-be-renamed Utah Hockey Club. But those eyeballs don’t just want hockey in Utah, they want good hockey. Playoff hockey. They want to be entertained with sky-high ticket prices.

Oh, and that’s not the only source of pressure on Armstrong. He has a new owner to please, Ryan Smith, who just spent over a billion dollars, probably more than market value, on his new professional sports team.

Smith also just put a new man at the helm: former sports agent Chris Armstrong, who has no relationship with Bill. Chris Armstrong has worked in both hockey and golf agencies in recent years (his best-known client was Utah golfer Tony Finau), but was quickly named hockey club president of the new Hockey Club soon after Smith left the team had taken over.

It all comes down to circumstances that seem to require flash.

A lot of money? Bill. New bosses to impress? Bill. An expectant, passionate fanbase? More than 34,000 subscription vouchers for season tickets.

The team could spend a lot of money now. Preferably on a splashy new striker: Sam Reinhart, 57-goal goalscorer and Cup champion, and Jake Guentzel, 40-goal scorer, are both on the free agent market. There were even false rumors that Utah would acquire Maple Leafs star Mitch Marner.

But Armstrong doesn’t agree that his team should make that

He believes the team’s front office should focus on defense and not offense.

“We need to add a few defensemen to strengthen our team and take the next step,” Armstrong said.

He believes the team should spend some of its available salary cap space this season but save most of it to pay their young prospects down the road.

“There are a lot of good things we can do. But I don’t necessarily think that when we fill our caps, we think we’re going to win a Stanley Cup next year,” he said.

He believes the No. 6 pick in Friday’s draft, and the rest of his 13 picks in the 2024 NHL draft, likely won’t play in the major leagues right away. “They play huge minutes there, they play a great developmental role there and when they step up they end up fighting harder.”

He believes his team can follow in the footsteps of the brand new Florida Panthers. “Florida defeated Edmonton +11 (in Game 7)…We continue to build our team, not just with hockey sense, but with some size and grit.”

And yes, he believes his team can bring a Stanley Cup to Utah – not now, but later.

According to his plan, the success of the Utah Hockey Club will not be accelerated. It will come when it needs to, when the young players he is collecting are ready together. And if it does come to that, Armstrong believes this process will culminate in one of the longest periods of sustained success the modern NHL has ever seen.

Only time will tell if that time comes. As Utah’s NHL team heads into its first offseason, he’s hoping not for a leap, but for a small, sensible step.