Utah Hockey Club enters its first NHL draft since relocating from Arizona with the most picks in the league at its disposal.

Utah holds 13 picks entering the annual draft, held at the Sphere in Las Vegas (5 p.m. MDT, ESPN), a stockpile that general manager Bill Armstrong amassed quickly once he took over as Arizona’s general manager in 2020.

The trade of defender Oliver Ekman-Larsson to the Vancouver Canucks by Armstrong sent the most recent rebuilding process into hyperdrive in 2021. One of the picks from that trade turned into right winger Dylan Guenther, who scored 18 goals and had 17 assists last season, and importantly, opened up salary cap space for the Coyotes.

From 2019-22, due to the impacts of COVID-19 on the league, the NHL’s salary cap remained flat at $81.5 million, and that put the Coyotes in a unique position to take on salary from other teams in exchange for draft picks.

“We just so happened to time it around COVID, where the cap just went flat and it stayed flat for a long time and teams had anticipated the growth of the cap and it didn’t happen. And teams got stuck with bad contracts and when we decided to go down and rip apart the team, we timed it just right,” Armstrong said in a press conference with local media Tuesday.

“And so we ran into a lot of teams that were giving us second rounders to take bad contracts and at the time nobody had the cap flexibility that we did to take on those contracts.”

Six of Utah’s 13 draft picks — including two of their three second-round selections — were acquired by Armstrong via trade in the last three years.

“I don’t know if it’ll ever be done again in the National Hockey League to acquire that amount of picks in that short of time,” Armstrong said. “I think we got some puck luck on that one, but there was some strategic planning and we executed the plan. So a little bit of credit on our side, but a little bit of timing and luck too.”

Utah holds the No. 6 overall pick in the seven-round NHL draft, plus three in the second round — Nos. 38, 49, and 65. UHC has three selections in round three, two in round four, one in round five, two in round six and one in round seven.

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Armstrong calls this draft “wide open” after the first pick, which is projected to be Boston College center Macklin Celebrini.

“I think it is probably an interesting draft in the sense that there’s a lot of different, there’s basically anywhere from 10 or 12 guys that have the chance to go after the number one pick comes off the board, so it’s wide open,” Armstrong said.

Though Utah is selecting in the lottery, unlike high selections in the NBA or NFL drafts, where the player is expected to immediately contribute, it may take some time for even the No. 6 pick to see minutes with Utah in the NHL, with Armstrong saying that it’s “highly unlikely” that whomever Utah selects at No. 6 to play with the team in his first year.

Utah Hockey Club's 2024 NHL Draft picks

1st Round: 6th overall pick

2nd Round: 38th, 49th and 65th overall

3rd Round: 71st, 89th and 96th overall

4th Round: 98th and 103rd overall

5th Round: 135th overall

6th round: 167th and 190th overall

7th round: 199th overall

“Sometimes you can walk away with somebody that high and they can jump right into your lineup and play. We’re at the point right now where we really want to develop our players,” Armstrong said.

“Not to say that they won’t have an opportunity to come in and make our team in camp, but for the most part what you’re seeing there is going to be an impact player at some point in time in their career, but it takes them a little bit of time and development to go through and that’s part of our process that we’ve tried to usher into our organization with so many young guys.”

While Utah fans likely won’t see players drafted in the second round and beyond on the ice this season, the draft is integral for the future of the team — Armstrong said that “very rarely” are “high-end,” No. 1 options traded for and are usually selected through the draft.

Having 13 picks, Armstrong has a chance to swing for the fences and find some gems.

“You always find when you get multiple picks in rounds, there’s a little bit of draft strategy there for you that you can use and you can be aggressive,” Armstrong said, explaining that when you have a limited amount of picks, you don’t want to make a mistake. “... When you have more picks you can be more aggressive. And I find when you can do that, you can really target some guys that have high potential in the back rounds, too.”

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The wealth of selections also gives Armstrong flexibility to make a trade, like he did in June last year, trading a 2024 second-round pick for Los Angeles Kings defender Sean Durzi. Durzi played 76 games for Arizona in 2023-24, getting the most minutes on the ice of all of the Coyotes’ roster, and scoring nine goals while dishing out 32 assists.

Ryan Smith, co-founder and chairman of Smith Entertainment Group, Ashley Smith, co-founder of Smith Entertainment Group, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman attend a press conference at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City to announce that the NHL would be coming to Utah on Friday, April 18, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“I think with our process we’re pretty flexible, it allows us to go buy players at the draft if there’s somebody available that we think like we did last year with Durzi,” Armstrong said. “You can always use those picks to go buy players. So there’s definitely some options to add some players in. Obviously your phone’s got to ring and you got to see if you can make some deals to improve your team, but we do have that option too.”

Back in 2021, Armstrong put the plan to stockpile draft picks in motion, and it’s coming to fruition three years later in this draft.

“This is the way that we designed it and built it. We’re an organization that will have a chance to win a championship, but only through the draft,” Armstrong said.

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