Asset management: Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong secures major haul for Darcy Kuemper
Arizona also adds Jaškin, Dzingel, Hutton, O'Brien, Kirk
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Bill Armstrong will never say it out loud, but he had Joe Sakic over a barrel on Wednesday afternoon.
Colorado’s starting goaltender, Philipp Grubauer, had just signed a six-year contract with the expansion Seattle Kraken. There was no word if Vezina Trophy winner Marc-Andre Fleury was willing to request a trade out of Chicago to Denver, or if he would simply retire. Colorado’s GM was staring at a stacked roster in Year 3 of its Stanley Cup window that was missing one critical piece: an elite goaltender.
Sakic had nowhere else to turn. The only Cup-worthy goalie available was the one in the desert whose agent had already encouraged Armstrong to trade him for the best deal possible. Kuemper, 31, was not going to re-sign in Arizona when his contract expired in 2022 because he didn't want to endure a lengthy rebuild.
Every executive and writer with whom I spoke told me that Armstrong was never going to get a first-round pick for Kuemper. It just doesn’t happen that often with goaltenders. But Armstrong held firm to his wish, and then he got some help.
While other teams such as Boston, Philadelphia and Carolina dropped out of the running by adding other goalies, the Edmonton Oilers ramped up their efforts to land Kuemper. Suddenly, Armstrong was in a bidding war for a hot and unique commodity.
“We were fortunate at the time to have one of the best goaltenders in the game on our team and a couple of the best teams in the league looking for one,” said Armstrong, who never named the Oilers. “You’ve got to have a little bit of luck.”
Edmonton was willing to meet parts of Armstrong’s demands, but the Oilers didn’t have the plug-in prospect that Colorado could offer. Sakic wasn’t ready to open the vault just yet, and he had rebuffed earlier attempts at forward Alex Newhook, so at 4 p.m. Arizona time, Armstrong began a Zoom call with local reporters to discuss the minor deals the team had made up to that point, including the official signing of KHL scoring leader Dmitrij Jaškin.
Four minutes into that conversation Armstrong’s phone rang and he vanished from the Zoom call.
Sakic was on the line, and the offer was more than anyone could have imagined: Kuemper to the Avs for 6-feet-2, 22-year-old, right-handed defenseman Conor Timmins, a first-round pick in the stacked 2022 NHL Draft, $1 million of Kuemper’s salary retained and a conditional third-round pick whose notable details The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported.
When the day ended, Armstrong was in possession of seven picks (two first-rounders, five second-rounders) in the first two rounds of a 2022 draft that is shaping up to be one of the best two or three drafts of this millennium — headlined by center Shane Wright and forward Ivan Miroshnichenko.
“From what we can tell so far — the year is not completed — but it looks to be a strong draft and there will be a lot of leftover kids that nobody knew about just because of the pandemic,” Armstrong said. “There's a good opportunity for us to move forward as an organization and that’s what we’ve tried to do through this whole landslide of accumulating picks.”
The trade of Kuemper robs Arizona of one of its few game-changing players (Conor Garland was another one), but in truth, that was the goal. The Coyotes are spiraling into an unabashed rebuild. Had Armstrong failed to move Kuemper, the goaltender probably would have won some games on his own next season and hurt the team's chances at landing a high lottery pick. Instead, Armstrong maximized his asset while putting Kuemper in an enviable position.
“It’s an unbelievable team and the opportunity to go and play for a team like that doesn't come around all that often so I am super excited," Kuemper said by phone. “They’ve got some unbelievable, game-changing type players. They are definitely hard to play against as a goalie. I’ve seen that side of it. Now I’m really excited to see it from the other net.”
Kuemper’s rebirth as a goalie actually began when he was a backup working under goalie coach Bill Ranford in Los Angeles in 2017-18, but he blossomed after former GM John Chayka stole him from the Kings for forward Tobias Rieder and goaltender Scott Wedgewood in February 2018.
Kuemper finished fifth in Vezina Trophy voting the following season (he should have been a finalist), and ranked among the goaltending leaders in several major statistical categories for two and a half seasons.
“As excited as I am for the opportunity, I'm really sad to be leaving,” he said. “This is a place that gave me an opportunity to take my career to a different level and be the guy and play a ton of games. It became a home.
“I played with great teammates who were committed to playing a team game. The more I got to play, the more comfortable I felt in there. I kept pushing to get better and better and that's what I'm going to keep trying to do."
Earlier in this offseason, Armstrong made headlines for shedding the team of Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s contract, acquiring a glut of second-round draft picks, and acquiring the ninth overall pick in the 2021 draft that led to forward Dylan Guenther, who some scouts had among their top three prospects in the draft.
More recently, however, Armstrong has started acquiring some young, but more advanced prospects who can become a part of the team that hopes to contend for a playoff spot in three or four years. He got 6-feet-1, 20-year-old defenseman Vladislav Kolyachonok from the Florida Panthers in the Anton Strålman deal, and on Wednesday, he got Timmins, who played 31 games on the Avs’ deep blue line last season.
“I really like him as a D-man,” said Armstrong, who has been looking for more size on his back end. “I saw a tremendous amount of growth for him at the World Juniors when he was a 19-year-old playing for Canada and I never could get that out of my mind. I thought he played well at times for the Avs. It was kind of a stacked team there and he didn’t quite get his footing.”
Armstrong said recently hired director of pro scouting Alan Hepple influenced the Timmins acquisition. Hepple was the Avalanche’s director of amateur scouting in 2017 when Colorado drafted Timmins.
“For us, it really helped that we got an NHL player on the backside and a right D that is over 6-2, '' said Armstrong, who expects Timmins to play in the Coyotes’ top four. “Those guys are hard to find. He’s got tremendous upside and he's got the opportunity to play for us right away.”
The Coyotes were active in other areas on Wednesday. They signed speedy free-agent forward Ryan Dzingel to a one-year $1.1 million deal, they signed goalie Carter Hutton to a one-year $750,000 contract and they added forward Liam O’Brien on a two-way deal, while officially announcing the signing of English-born forward Liam Kirk, who will play in Tucson next season.
“Carter obviously got hampered a little bit by injuries lately, but I have a huge familiarity with him from my St. Louis days,” said Armstrong, who envisions Hutton in a backup role. “He’s just a great human being that comes to the rink every day that just wants to compete. He’s someone for us that can steal games with his energy and just the way he plays.”
Dzingel was a rookie with the Ottawa Senators while Coyotes coach André Tourigny was a Senators assistant coach.
“André believes in him,” Armstrong said. “He gives us something that we don’t have and that’s a lot of speed. He brings speed all day long to the wings and I think where he excels is he’s got to be put in some top-six situations and some prime-time ice on the power play with some good players. We believe he can produce.”
The Jaškin signing has been in the works for three months. In two seasons with Dynamo Moscow, Jaškin had more goals than any KHL player, totaling 69 in 117 games. He led the KHL with 38 goals in 59 games last season.
Jaškin (6-feet-2, 215 pounds) last played in the NHL with the Washington Capitals in 2018-19, but he spent five seasons with the St. Louis Blues where Armstrong was the director of amateur scouting and played a major role in drafting him with the 41st overall pick in 2011.
“He has something to prove,” Armstrong said. “That was his big thing when we signed him was he wanted to come back over to the NHL and prove that he can score in this league and we’re going to put him in some situations with some talented players.
“It’s a transition from the KHL game into the NHL game and does it translate? That’s the one thing where we went back and forth and looked at it, and we felt it did. The way he scored his goals are the same way that you can score in the NHL. He’s pretty dominant around the front of the net. Down low, he’s just got a big body that can move and he can make small plays and use his teammates. He plays a complete game now. He’s made huge strides since he left the NHL.”
Jaškin said he wanted to return to the NHL last season but the pandemic made it too difficult and he was afraid he would be inactive for too long.
“The two years in Russia were really helpful and good in my improvement and finding the right spots for my game and everything else,” he said. “I think I just improved my game around the net a lot because that’s where my spot was. I just figured that that was where I am supposed to be and that’s where I am strong.”
With Jaškin’s signing, the Coyotes are closing in on an NHL roster.
There is some work to do in the next two days of free agency, however. The Coyotes will probably sign a veteran goalie to man the starter’s role, but they may wait to see which players need a home late in the process and can be had for a better rate. Hutton, Josef Kořenář and Karel Vejmelka are all viewed as No. 2 or No. 3 goalies.
There is also the matter of forward Phil Kessel, who has one year left on his contract and led the team with 20 goals last season. Per sources, the Coyotes were resigned to the idea that they would have to trade Kessel at the deadline despite his nominal remaining salary because teams did not appear interested in him for a full season. But Kessel’s camp renewed its request for a trade before next season and Armstrong will try to oblige, rather than keeping Kessel around as a distraction. I think if Armstrong could get a third-round pick for Kessel he’d take it.
If that happens, and if Armstrong trades center Christian Dvorak — there was little if any Dvorak trade talk on Wednesday — the Coyotes might be looking for a couple more forwards. They may be anyway with the playing ability of Ladd and Eriksson in doubt. If they do add, expect Armstrong to look for bargain players with potential whom he might be able to flip at the trade deadline for even more assets.
“I feel we’ve done a good job on the first day of patching some holes in there and really putting kids in there that we like,” he said Wednesday. “Obviously they’re not $6-8 million, but they’re players that we value that can get the job done and will overachieve for the dollars that they make. We feel like when these guys are in the right situations they’re going to overachieve.”
Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter: @CraigSMorgan