Utah Hockey Club has many options as 2024 draft approaches

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SALT LAKE CITY — Soon, Utah Hockey Club general manager Bill Armstrong won't feel much like a human.

Humans, after all, have complex emotions and multiple thoughts. The week leading up to the draft, he becomes pretty singularity-focused.

"It just consumes you," Armstrong said. "It's almost like you're not human because you only have one thought. Just the entire week is just draft, draft, draft."

On June 28 in Las Vegas, the Utah Hockey Club will make the franchise's first-ever draft selection. The team has the No. 6 spot in the draft and 13 total over the two-day draft.

Will Utah take a big defenseman — which Armstrong has an affinity for — like Michigan State's Artyom Levshunov, the OHL's Sam Dickinson, or 6-foot-7 Anton Silayev? Could the team take a swing on a big center like WHL's Cayden Lindstrom? What about forward Cole Eiserman, who may be the best goal scorer in the draft?

"I think there's a good talent level there," Armstrong said. "They're young men that are 18, and some of them are still late developers and you can just see glimpses of who they're going to be. But there's some good talent there."

It's a new team for Utah, but not for Armstrong. To him, the club is entering the fourth year of a calculated rebuild, and Armstrong has given himself some options entering that fourth year.

Utah has seven draft picks in the first three rounds this season and next, and six more in the first three rounds in 2026-27. The Hockey Club will also have about $40 million in cap space to use in free agency (the team doesn't have a blue liner signed for next season), which is the most in the NHL.

With a horde of assets and a deeper-pocketed owner now manning the ship, is Armstrong ready to push some chips on the table? Eh, not exactly.

More money creates more options, but Armstrong wants to build a team that can contend for a decade — not just for a couple seasons. So don't expect him to go on a spending bender or try to cash in on years of assets to chase a Cup in the first season in Utah (Expect Utah to sign some short-term deals in free agency to fill out the roster).

The goal is to improve the team while not sacrificing the future. The draft allows Armstrong and his team a chance to do just that.

"You look at what you can get at the end of the day," Armstrong said. "Can you bundle all your picks and move up and get one guy? Or do you just use your picks to take swings at four or five guys? Can you use picks to go out and buy a player? There are so many different options for us."

Armstrong and his team were in Buffalo earlier this month for the NHL combine, and running their own combine out of Arizona "just because we're set up in the rinks there."

Unlike the NBA's pre-draft workouts, NHL teams are not allowed to bring in players for private sessions if the player participated in the NHL combine. The top 100 NHL prospects are invited to the official combine.

"That's an important process to know more about the back end of the draft," Armstrong said. "You never beat the NHL by seven goals. You might beat them by just one — just one step. ahead of them."

So will Utah be using all 13 picks?

Armstrong has been on both ends of draft pick trades. In 2022, he bundled the 27th, 34th, and 45th picks together to trade up for the 11th pick where he selected center Conor Geekie. In 2021, he traded captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson for three draft picks. Those are just two examples of the usual busy Armstrong.

"No matter where you move, you've got to get the right player," Armstrong said.

He admits, though, that most of those conversations end up with the team choosing to stay in their original spots.

"We've earned the right to pick here, let's swing from here," he said. "So that conversation happens a lot. We talk about it 24/7 that week; it's just crazy how much it consumes us about all the different things that can happen at the draft."

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