Bill Armstrong dusted off a parable to illustrate the coming stages of development for the Coyotes’ prospects.
“You have four brothers and the king calls the first brother over and says, ‘I want you to go across the mountains to see a tree and tell me what the tree looks like,’” Armstrong began. “So the first brother goes across the mountains, sees the tree, comes back and he says, ‘My king. There’s no leaves on it. The tree is dead. There’s nothing there.’
“A couple months later, the king sends another brother across the mountains and the brother comes back and says, ‘The tree is alive! There’s some buds coming from it. There’s some life. There’s something there!’
“Now the third brother goes across the mountains a couple of months later, comes back and says, ‘There’s leaves and it’s beautiful and it’s green and it’s fantastic!’
“But then the fourth brother goes across the mountains a few months after that and he tells the king, ‘Oh, it has died again! The leaves are all falling off!’”
Armstrong said that there are many “seasons of a player’s development.” The obvious hope is that the cycle does not end with what the fourth brother in the parable saw, but there are lessons to be gleaned from the ups and downs.
“When you start the development process you’re going to see good things from players but you’re also going to see the player not look so good so you have to have patience and you can’t overreact to what you might see in this one little phase of his development,” Armstrong said. “What you have to do is give that player all of the resources and time that he needs.”
When the St. Lous Blues drafted Sammy Blais in the sixth round in 2014, while Armstrong was the Blues’ director of amateur scouting, Blais reported to the NHL Prospect Tournament in Traverse City, Michigan so out of shape that Armstrong said he could not keep up with the play and was eventually pulled for the last game of the tournament.
Three-plus seasons later, Blais finally cracked an NHL lineup, and five years later, he established himself as an NHL player.
“It’s like planting a tree,” Armstrong said. “You want to plant it the right way with the right soil around it, make sure you water it every day and then it’s gonna bloom. You need to put it in the best conditions possible to grow it fastest and make it the strongest. That’s what development is all about: having contact with the prospects, helping them through tough times, making sure they’re constantly motivated, and making sure that they have every resource possible to help them get to the NHL.”
He won’t carry the title of king, but the man charged with shepherding an ever deepening pool of Coyotes prospects is a guy who has seen all of the seasons of an NHL career. Lee Stempniak played 14 NHL seasons for 10 different teams (including the Coyotes) and 14 different coaches. He has played on the top line with Sidney Crosby, he has been a middle-six player, he has been a depth player and he has even been on waivers.
That litany of experiences, the exposure to so many teams’ coaching and development philosophies, and two seasons of impressive work in the organization convinced Armstrong to name Stempniak the Coyotes’ new director of player development after Alex Henry stepped down to spend more time at home, helping raise his two young boys.
“This is really what I wanted to do so I was really happy I got the opportunity to do it,” Stempniak said. “Bill and the ownership group have really put an emphasis on development now with all of the resources they are devoting to it. We have these high-end prospects coming in so the next step is to help these players get to the NHL, be impact NHL players and stay in the NHL.”
Stempniak joined the organization almost two years ago to serve as a data analyst, essentially translating analytics into workable information for the coaching staff and the players. He enjoyed that work. As an economics major at Dartmouth, numbers always interested him, but he also took on a part-time player development role with prospects such as Sam Lipkin, John Farinacci, Carson Bantle, Manix Landry, Ilya Fedotov and Anthony Romano.
“I was really lucky as a young player to play with some really good veterans like Keith Tkachuk, Barret Jackman, Doug Weight, Dallas Drake and Billy Guerin who took me under their wing and looked out for me on the ice, off the ice and in the locker room,” said Stempniak, whom the Blues drafted in the fifth round in 2003. “As I played a little longer, I became one of the veteran players to do that for younger guys that I played with and I really enjoyed it.
“When I came out of Dartmouth for my first NHL training camp, there was no development camp, no rookie camp. You got thrown into training camp and there’s an intrasquad scrimmage on Day 1. I was like a deer in headlights, just trying to get my bearings, so I really understand how hard that adjustment period can be, and how important it is to have both people and resources to lean on.”
Stempniak took over his new role earlier in the offseason, but Armstrong has been tinkering with the development staff all summer. The Coyotes named Nathaniel Brooks their skill development coach in July, they named Steve Potvin coach of the Roadrunners, Zack Stortini as a Roadrunners assistant coach and Armstrong still expects to add one more piece.
“One of the things we’re trying to do is almost write a book on development; almost like we did with the amateur side when we put all those resources into scouting to prepare us for the draft,” Armstrong said. “We’ve got a tremendous amount of development knowledge, from executives to (assistant coach) Cory Stillman to (pro scout) David Oliver and (amateur scout) Mark Bell; guys who have done it.
“There’s so many layers to a development staff and they all do play a major role in development, whether it’s trying to get that prospect to stack weight on, get stronger, work on his skating or work on his weaknesses. They’re behind the scenes, driving it every single day, pushing the prospects in our organization to get better. Summer is a big time for the Coyotes. We’ve got to make sure we’re working as hard as we can, and maybe even harder in the summer, just to push the pace.”
The Coyotes’ development staff
|Lee Stempniak||Director, player development|
|Brett Stewart||Director, European pro scouting & development|
|Steve Potvin||Roadrunners head coach|
|John Slaney||Roadrunners assistant coach|
|Zack Stortini||Roadrunners assistant coach|
|Jake Wagman||Roadrunners director of hockey ops/video coach|
|Kyle Bochek||Skills coach|
|Nathaniel Brooks||Development coach|
|Lars Hepso||Skating coach|
|Charlie McTavish||Goaltending development coach|
|Devan McConnell||High performance director|
|Mitch Stewart, Ryan Wysocki||Performance coaches|
|Callum Cowan||Nutrition & high-performance consultant|
|Carl Bombardier||High-performance nutrition coach|
|Vince Lodato||Director, mental wellness/player performance|
Development staff members such as Stempniak (Boston) and Brooks (Toronto) won’t be stationed in Arizona. Their emphasis will be on face-to-face work with prospects, whether that means on-ice training with European and Canadian junior prospects, collaborating with coaches of NCAA players with whom on-ice training is not permitted, or doing video work and placing Zoom calls.
“For most of these guys, getting to the NHL is not going to happen quickly so we’re sort of ushering them through the process until they become pro players, really trying to make the process efficient and maximize the growth in their game because they will change a lot over the next few years,” Stempniak said. “They show up as 18 year olds and some of them go to college for four years. Some go to junior for two years or anywhere in between. There’s a lot of time there to help them learn the intricacies of the game, but we can also work on the off-ice piece, the nutrition piece and the mental performance piece because we have all those resources.
“Every player is different. Some guys respond to being challenged, some guys wilt from being challenged so it’s really about getting to know the prospect on a personal level through constant communication, building trust and building that relationship so that when you talk to them it’s not dismissed, they’re not skeptical, they really believe you have their best interests at heart and you know what you’re talking about.”
Stempniak has already worked with the Tucson staff, but he will augment those efforts this season by trading insights and comparing knowledge bases with Steve Potvin and his staff. Potvin has a proven, recent track record of shepherding prospects from the last stage of their development to the NHL.
“I think it becomes a battle of attrition between the player and the coach,” Potvin said. “The player has to go through this period where he has to kind of unzip himself and sometimes it’s really uncomfortable. Once they have a little success, they tend to go back to what they’ve done in the past, so the attrition part is staying consistent with the message and the new methods that aren’t really, habitually, something they do every day.
“As the coach, you have to be so clear so that they’re not wearing you down. You tell them, ‘Hey, I understand and I know that you had success doing it this way but we have to stay on task; we have to stay on the plan to get you to the NHL and we, as coaches, have to be committed to the plan. We have to have that same level of commitment as the players.”
Aside from all of the internal resources that Stempniak can tap for advice on building out a program, he has remained in touch with Henry, who has been a part of the Coyotes staff since 2017. That bridge has fostered a sense of continuity despite the new voice at the helm.
“I want our prospects to have a growth mindset and learn that mistakes aren’t setbacks; they’re learning opportunities,” Stempniak said. “I want guys that want to be coached with a mentality of never being satisfied; constantly striving to be better. To an extent, we can cultivate that with how we approach it, and how our coaches approach teaching and working and giving feedback to the players.
“We obviously have a lot of prospects right now and we’re going to have a lot more soon so it’s gonna be a lot of work. We’ve got our work cut out for us to put in the work, to watch the games, to get on the road and see these guys, but again, we have the resources to do that so we will do that. It’s a really exciting time and it’s exciting to be part of this really important process.”
Top photo of Stempniak courtesy of Jessica Rinaldo, Boston Globe