Utah Gov. Spencer Cox invited the crowd gathered at the Delta Center last month to come back when the Utah hockey club wins the Stanley Cup. Team broadcaster Matt McConnell said the team could be “really good, really fast.” Goalie Connor Ingram told the fans he would run through a wall for them.

The arena was brimming with optimism on April 24 when fans filled seemingly every available seat to welcome Utah’s new NHL team, its general manager, head coach and players to Salt Lake City.

But how competitive will Utah’s new hockey club, formerly the Arizona Coyotes, actually be when the season kicks off this fall? Is the yet-to-be-named club on a path to the playoffs?

Team officials and players cited young talent, organizational depth and a “warchest” of draft picks over the next three seasons as reasons to believe a postseason run — maybe even a deep run — is possible in the near future.

“This is the most difficult part of this whole process, is that the future was going to be so bright,” said Steve Peters, a former Coyotes assistant coach, on a recent episode of the PHNX podcast dedicated to educating Utahns about the team.

“And now, Utah, the future is yours.”

Fans gather at airport to welcome Utah’s new NHL team off the plane
Left wing Lawson Crouse and right wing Clayton Keller speak to the media prior to an NHL welcome party at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Young talent and an All-Star

During April’s introductory event, the Utah hockey club put its young star front and center.

Clayton Keller, a high-scoring forward, was the only Coyotes player to make the All-Star game over the past three seasons and is a four-time All-Star. He’s scored more than 30 goals over the past two seasons and was the team’s co-captain. At 25, he’s one of the league’s young stars and already has more than 500 games of NHL experience.

“I think he has something to prove in Utah,” Peters said. “Clayton Keller believes he’s the guy because he is the guy.”

In addition to Keller’s 33 goals and 76 points, the Coyotes had five 20-goal scorers. Three are age 26 or younger: forward and co-captain Lawson Crouse, 26, a three-time 20 goal scorer; Matias Maccelli, 23, who was second on the team in assists; and Logan Cooley, 19, the third overall pick in 2022.

“What fans are going to get from this team is an exciting young team that can score goals,” said general manager Bill Armstrong, who helped build a Stanley Cup winner in St. Louis as an assistant GM. “When you’re that young, there’s a consistency where you can’t be great every night. But the fans are going to love the fact that we’ve got talented players. ... They give first and second efforts. That goes from Cooley to Keller to Crouse, down the line for our team.”

Prospects in the pipeline

In February, The Athletic ranked each organization in terms of prospect depth and talent. Arizona came in at No. 9.

The organization’s top prospect, 21-year-old Dylan Guenther, split time between the Coyotes and the affiliate Tucson Roadrunners this season and scored 18 goals in 45 NHL games. Guenther, nicknamed “Gunner,” was the ninth overall pick in the 2021 draft and is currently playing for the Roadrunners in the first round of the AHL playoffs.

“He has a goal-scorer’s shot,” NHL writer Craig Morgan said on the PHNX podcast.

Another player from the top prospects list who spent time on the Arizona roster this past season is Josh Doan, 22, son of former Coyote Shane Doan. The 22-year-old Arizona native is the organization’s No. 7 overall prospect, according to The Athletic.

As the son of a franchise icon, Doan comes from “royal hockey blood,” according to Morgan.

“Josh Doan will never short you in work ethic or character or leadership,” Morgan said on the podcast. “This is a family that (Utah) ... is going to fall in love with.”

This father-son legacy will follow the Arizona Coyotes to Utah

Conor Geekie, a 19-year-old center, is the organization’s fourth overall prospect and is competing in the playoffs with Tucson.

Peters said that while the organization has struggled at the NHL level defensively, there are a number of good (and tall) defensemen in the pipeline. Utah’s No. 2 overall prospect, according to The Athletic, is Dmitri Simashev, a 19-year-old, 6-foot-4 Russian defenseman.

(For more on the Utah hockey club’s prospects, listen to the PHNX podcast’s “Utah Fan Primer” episode.)

The draft ... and all those picks

Despite multiple seasons of missing the playoffs, Arizona never won the lottery to pick No. 1 in the NHL Entry Draft. Since the Coyotes moved to Arizona in 1996, they’ve never had a chance to select generational talents like Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Nathan MacKinnon, Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews or Connor Bedard.

Armstrong is ready for that to change.

“I personally think we’ve got a good chance at picking at one, because the franchise has been so many times in the lottery and haven’t won it,” he said on April 24. “So, odds are at some point in time, your numbers gotta come up.”

‘My best day in the NHL so far’: Salt Lake shows up for new hockey club

Whether that happens or not will be determined on Tuesday, when the NHL draft lottery is held. Utah has the sixth-best odds (7.5%) to win the first overall pick. Macklin Celebrini of Boston University is the presumptive No. 1 pick.

The NHL Entry Draft will be June 28-29.

Regardless of how the lottery turns out, Armstrong has stockpiled 20 picks in the first three rounds over the next three seasons.

“This is a great time for us obviously going into the draft because of the amount of picks we have, because it gives us options,” Armstrong said. “Adding more prospects to this organization is a great thing and will give us a chance to be a championship team in the future.”

Still in a rebuild

Armstrong described the organization as entering the fourth year of a rebuild.

“It’s not a perfect team,” he said. “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.”

Added head coach André Tourigny, who will coach Team Canada in the upcoming world championships: “Before you win, you need to lose.”

During the podcast, Morgan said the temptation to win now and trade away draft picks and prospects for established players could compromise what has so far been a successful rebuild.

“You can’t fast-forward this process. ... They’re not ready yet,” Morgan said. “This group of players is not ready. They are a couple of years away.”

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A tough division

Utah will play in the Central Division, which features the West’s No. 1 overall seed in Dallas (113 points) and a Colorado team that won the Stanley Cup two years ago.

Another Division foe, the Winnipeg Jets, finished with 110 points — tied for the fifth-best finish in the NHL.

“It’s very challenging,” Keller said. “You look at teams in the playoffs, teams that have gone through rebuilds, similar situations to us. Those are where we want to be someday. We have a great group of young guys, great staff, great people in our organization, so I think it’s really exciting to be here.”

Keller says he believes Utah is a playoff team.

“We have depth and we’re a fast, skilled team, and we can play with anyone when we’re playing our best,” he said.

What was said at Utah’s NHL press conference