Roadrunners looking to make postseason waves

Photo: Mark Nessia

📝 by Patrick Williams

The Tucson Roadrunners can take another important step forward tonight.

Tucson visits Henderson holding a five-point edge on San Jose for the Pacific Division’s seventh and final playoff spot. A win tonight is even more paramount with the Central Division leading Texas Stars coming to town this weekend.

Late-season, high-pressure, tense hockey is exactly what the Arizona Coyotes seek for their young prospects in Tucson. Playing deep into the spring is something that has eluded the Arizona organization, and when general manager Bill Armstrong came to the Coyotes in 2020, building a strong development program ranked among his top mandates.

To help do that, Armstrong brought in John Ferguson as the Roadrunners’ new GM in 2021. With past AHL experience in the St. Louis and Boston organizations, Ferguson has seen up-close what goes into building an affiliate that can both develop prospects and forge a winning environment.

“Healthy internal competition that we are creating is fostering every day, every week, every month,” Ferguson said. “Some of these guys are going to get a chance to go up and help when they need it up top. Everybody keeps an eye on individual growth but also organizational growth of the teams at both levels.”

To that end, the Coyotes went out last summer and added forwards Adam Cracknell, Jean-Sebastien Dea and Laurent Dauphin, all veterans with NHL experience who can push young prospects for ice time and top roles along with helping to carry the team to the postseason.

Ferguson is in his second year as the general manager in Tucson (he also holds a dual role as Arizona’s assistant general manager), and while getting to the Calder Cup Playoffs is a goal, so is doing something once they are there. In Tucson’s only previous trip to the Calder Cup Playoffs in 2017, the team eliminated San Jose in a first-round series before falling to Texas in the division finals; that marks the only playoff series win by a Coyotes affiliate since 2003.

When the Coyotes decided to relocate their AHL affiliation to Tucson in 2016, it helped to solidify a long-term home for their prospects. The new regime blends the scouting expertise of Armstrong, who spent 10 years as the director of amateur scouting with the St. Louis Blues, with Ferguson’s background managing successful AHL operations — a combination designed to bring young talent to the organization and then develop it successfully in Tucson.

Like any team, if Arizona is to succeed long-term, building from within will be key. They gave forward Barrett Hayton, the fifth overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, a chance to develop in Tucson; he has gone on to feature as a regular in the Arizona lineup. So has forward Matias Maccelli, who had 57 points in 47 games last season with Tucson. Another first-rounder, defenseman Victor Soderstrom, has played 108 games with Tucson across parts of three seasons. This is not an organization rushing a young blueliner, even one who was the 11th overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.

Arizona also went outside the organization to reinforce the Tucson lineup by adding veteran defenseman Steven Kampfer in a March 9 trade with Detroit. Ferguson and Kampfer had been together in the Boston organization for parts of three seasons, and the executive felt comfortable bringing in the 34-year-old veteran of 231 NHL games to help get this Tucson team into the postseason. Kampfer has been part of a pairing with 23-year-old Cameron Crotty, a Coyotes third-rounder from 2017.

“There was some opportunity and, frankly, some need to support what we had in place,” Ferguson said of acquiring Kampfer, “and to demonstrate to our players, our coaching staff, and the organization that that we want to make a push, we want to be competitive, and we want to go fight for the playoffs.”

Tucson lost blueliners Conor Timmins and Dysin Mayo in separate trades earlier in the season, and added Michael Kesselring in a deal that sent Cam Dineen to the Edmonton Oilers. Ferguson wanted to settle down his defense corps, and a steady hand like Kampfer could do that. He has taken on heavy ice time in all situations while adding a pair of goals and six points in his 11 games since the trade.

Before Kampfer’s arrival, the Roadrunners had gone through a 4-7-2-0 slide stretching more than six weeks. They are 6-4-1-0 with Kampfer in their lineup, and another big week can move them that much closer to the postseason. Get hot down the stretch, get in, sprinkle in some additions from the Coyotes for the postseason, and the Roadrunners could be a dangerous first-round opponent.

“Our challenge is to develop and win,” Ferguson stated. “That internal competition… We want that fostered, developed, and maintained so our players get a taste of the competition required, improvement required and teamwork required to achieve success as a pro individually and collectively.”