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Circle of trust: With the addition of John Ferguson Jr., Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong finally has his critical cast of advisors in place

Craig Morgan Avatar
September 17, 2021

Throughout his first year on the job, Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong put a brave face on the lack of confidants to whom he could turn. While he has jokingly compared his first months in the big chair to driving a Tesla 200 miles per hour in the fog, Armstrong has always pivoted quickly away from that pity-me approach, reminding everyone that he has a vast rolodex of NHL executives upon whom he can lean for advice.

A scout by trade, Armstrong had more than enough knowledge to hire director of amateur scouting Darryl Plandowski, associate director of amateur scouting Ryan Jankowski and a group of seasoned scouts in whom the future of the roster has been entrusted.

He used his contacts to identify coach André Tourigny as the man to shepherd the on-ice portion of the rebuild, and he used former right-hand man Brian Daccord to identify director of hockey operations and salary cap compliance David Ludwig, director of analytics Matt Perri, high performance director Devan McConnell and other key staff members.

But this was never a sustainable model. Everyone on the outside knew it, and privately, Armstrong knew it, too. He needed an inner circle of advisors who knew the game inside and out. He needed sounding boards off of which he could bounce ideas. He needed hockey operations veterans to share the load, relieve some of the stress and challenge his own assumptions.

As Armstrong celebrated the official one-year anniversary of his own hiring on Thursday, he put a bow on a busy but impressive summer with the hiring of John Ferguson Jr. as the Coyotes new assistant general manager and Tucson Roadrunners GM.

Ferguson brings more than two decades of executive experience to the position, most notably five years as the Toronto Maple Leafs GM, and 10 years as an assistant GM between St. Louis and Boston. He has worked with giants of the NHL executive world such as Lou Lamoriello — the director of player personnel at Providence College where Ferguson played — and Larry Pleau, now his colleague with the Coyotes. 

Like Pleau, Ferguson Jr. has sat in Armstrong’s chair — which makes this the equivalent of having three head coaches on a bench — but in putting the final major piece of the hockey operations staff in place, Armstrong also added something more esoteric.

“You know what he gives us?” Armstrong asked. “It’s like Shane Doan. He gives us credibility. That’s what we have tried to add with Larry Pleau and Shane Doan and John Ferguson Jr. These people are not only great people, but they’re great hockey minds who are well respected across the league.

“We’ve got the right people in place now and everybody has the same agenda. It took us a long time to get there, but it has been a really nice transition and I thank the ownership for that. I went in there and projected a transition plan and told them. ‘I want to hire the best people in the industry. I want to sit around the boardroom with great hockey minds’ and they have allowed us to go out there and do that.”

Ferguson’s arrival could not have come at a better time. Armstrong’s dizzying array of transactions has left the Coyotes with eight picks in the first two rounds of the loaded 2022 NHL Draft, and just three players signed past the 2022-23 season. Everything the Coyotes are doing, personnel-wise, is about the future. That future will be visible in Tucson before it will be visible with the NHL club. 

“My mission statement at that level hasn’t changed,” Ferguson Jr. said. “Very specifically and to the point, it’s to develop NHL players in a competitively successful environment. Yes, development precedes winning, but they’re not mutually exclusive. The competitive environment has to exist internally and externally. 

“These players that we’re putting in place are going to compete with each other for roles on the team, they’re going to compete with each other for ice time and for special teams, but they’re also going to compete alongside each other against their opponents. They’re going to do it every day in practice, they’re going to do it every game day, and they’re going to learn the benefits of contributing to a winning culture, and how to be a part of a winning team.”

Another key component of Ferguson’s philosophy meshes with something that Armstrong has preached since he arrived. He won’t be afraid to over-bake players in the AHL, rather than rushing them to the NHL club; a mistake that numerous Coyotes management staffs have made over the franchise’s 25 years in the Valley.

“It’s not a closed-minded view,” Ferguson Jr. said. “I will never put a ceiling on any player showing up at training camp and trying to earn an opportunity to demonstrate to us that they can play at the highest level. If you show us you’re ready, you can earn that spot earlier than you might otherwise think.

“There is no question that the number of skilled young players has grown and the skill level across the pool of players is higher, so that does afford some of them, who are physically capable, to make the jump quicker. But we will never set unrealistic expectations and we’re probably not going to be pushing anybody to get here. I haven’t seen any players who have played too many games in the American league, but I have seen a lot who haven’t played enough.”

There are still some lesser positions to fill on the Coyotes staff, and the offseason always brings more tweaks, but with the addition of Ferguson Jr., Armstrong’s chessboard is largely set. He has two seasoned executives at his side, he has one of the league’s most respected former players by his side, he has a variety of bright young minds in other positions, and he has a coach who was on most insiders’ lists of up-and-comers. The internal rebuild is all but over. That’s a good thing, because the on-ice rebuild is just beginning.

“I’m really enjoying the fact that everything is actually, finally going to be in-house,” Armstrong said. “Now you can ask a question and you’ll get a good answer back. You’ll get an answer from somebody you trust. You’ll get an answer from somebody who has the same agenda as you — somebody that you know has put in the time to acquire the knowledge to answer that question.”

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