NHL Teams
Josh Cooper 12d

John Chayka, the Arizona Coyotes' whiz-kid GM, is more than just a numbers nerd

LOS ANGELES -- As Arizona Coyotes general manager John Chayka took his place in the far left corner of the visiting press box at Staples Center, his age was not the only thing that set the 28-year-old apart from many of his contemporaries. Eschewing the coffee favored by most hockey folks, Chayka instead sipped a cup of mint tea and chased it with occasional gulps from a bottle of water mixed with a BioSteel nutritional supplement.

Chayka pointed out that the antioxidants in the tea and the nutrients in the supplement are more likely to help him stay healthy over the grind of an 82-game season than an artificial -- and temporary -- boost from caffeine.

"You can get worn down and get sick in this business," Chayka said, explaining why he chooses to go healthier with his beverage choices.

Chayka has been celebrated as one of the league's brightest young minds ever since he became the youngest GM in NHL history when Arizona hired him in 2016. During a preseason game against the Los Angeles Kings, he gave ESPN.com a peek into how that mind is working feverishly to reshape the Coyotes from one of the league's longtime also-rans into a contender.

On this particular night, Chayka was mostly focused on how effectively his team was moving the puck up the ice. "We want to see what our hit rate [coming out of the zone] is," he said. 

From a player-personnel perspective, he also wanted to get a good look at first-round draft picks Dylan Strome and Clayton Keller -- along with new acquisitions Jason Demers, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Derek Stepan.

The Coyotes finished with 70 points last season and missed the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year, so Chayka made aggressive -- and startling -- moves during the summer. First, he informed longtime captain Shane Doan, over breakfast at a local restaurant, that the team would not be offering the pending free agent a new contract. Then Chayka traded veteran goaltender Mike Smith to the Calgary Flames. Former coach Dave Tippett and the Coyotes also agreed to part ways, and Chayka replaced Tippett with Pittsburgh Penguins assistant coach Rick Tocchet, who played for and had a previous stint as an assistant with the Coyotes.

Adding Stepan from the New York Rangers, Hjalmarsson from the Chicago Blackhawks and Demers from the Florida Panthers was designed to give the team veteran depth to help the younger players develop with less pressure. Chakya and the Coyotes also hope that Tocchet's animated personality will give the team a different type of leadership than did the stoic Tippett. The Coyotes also added goaltender Antti Raanta, who was Henrik Lundqvist's backup with the Rangers, to replace Smith.

"I think the focus was, 'We have this core group of young players that we want to cultivate and grow. How do we put them in the best position to have success?'" Chayka said. "For us, [the priority] was surrounding them with veteran leadership that could grow with them."

Though Chayka is known as an analytics whiz, he is clearly comfortable speaking hockey's traditional language with assistant general manager Steve Sullivan. A high-scoring winger at the junior hockey level and OHL draft pick whose career ended because of a back injury, Chayka went on to co-found Stathletes, a hockey analytics company, in 2010 while earning a business degree. Stathletes' goal was to use video analysis to create statistics that better help measure the ability and value of players -- and to make those numbers more accessible. Thus, he doesn't come across as a "stats geek" who can't communicate with hockey lifers -- the knee-jerk stereotype for younger execs who subscribe to analytics.

In fact, the conversation between Chayka and Sullivan -- whom Arizona promoted to assistant GM this summer from his previous role as director of player development -- in the press box that night in L.A., occasionally sounded like an echo chamber. A slash by rookie Coyotes forward Christian Fischer elicited a "You can't do that!" exclamation from Chayka, which was echoed almost immediately by Sullivan, who then noted, "... but it's so natural to do it."

Although Sullivan -- who played 16 seasons with the New Jersey Devils, Toronto Maple Leafs, Chicago Blackhawks, Nashville Predators, Penguins and Coyotes -- admits that he was skeptical at first of Chayka, he was impressed with the latter's decision-making during Chayka's first draft with the team, then as assistant general manager, in 2015. Sullivan recalled how Chayka wasn't afraid to voice his opinion about prospects, even when it was contrary to those of some of his older co-workers. That chutzpah quickly won Sullivan over, and the two became friends.

"He had his laptop and he had all these numbers [that explained] what draft picks were worth, what would happen if you make a trade and what you would need in return if we were trading a certain pick or certain player," Sullivan said. "He was pretty vocal and confident in himself for someone we had just hired. I was still suspicious, but it takes very, very few conversations with him about hockey to realize he does have a very high knowledge of the game. And once you realize that, it just becomes two guys talking about the game."

Chayka uses analytics as a tool in his decision-making process and as a resource in dealing with players, coaches, agents and opposing GMs. But he also relies on the eye test. He had written the Coyotes' lines in a leather-bound notepad, and at various points during the first period, he scribbled ideas and thoughts on the page. 

"I just write down my general feelings and thoughts and things I want to research deeper," Chayka said.

Early on, Chayka seemed pleased with Demers, the puck-moving defenseman acquired from the Panthers for forward Jamie McGinn in mid-September. Chayka noted the way that Demers almost effortlessly moved the puck up the ice on two breakouts.

"That's actually two good plays by Demers there," Chayka said to Sullivan after the situations, which came almost in rapid succession.

Chayka also took note of the minutiae of the game. When Strome entered the faceoff dot, he stood farther away from the circle than some other players. 

"Look at Stromer, he doesn't stand anywhere near the lines," Chayka mused to Sullivan. "He prefers it."

Chaka wasn't pointing out a problem; he simply found it interesting that Strome took an unconventional strategy toward draws -- and it seemed to work. Strome was 63 percent on faceoffs during the game.

Throughout the period, Chayka did see plenty of situations where his team could improve -- particularly on delayed outlet passes from Arizona's zone.

"That's a late read," Chayka said after a defenseman missed the forward skating up the ice.

As he continues to tinker with his team's lineup -- the Demers acquisition was the 17th personnel addition the Coyotes made this offseason -- Chayka realizes that a GM's job doesn't cease once the season begins. Even on this night, a meaningless preseason game, he continued to analyze Arizona's every move and figure out ways the players could improve.

"I think you always try to find something to work on. The reality is a lot of times the end result might work out, but the process isn't what you'd like it to be," Chayka said. "Sometimes that's hockey. Sometimes guys make the wrong play, but they're skilled enough to get away with it."

The Coyotes took two penalties late in the period, which led to a Kings 5-on-3 advantage. Arizona killed off one of the power plays, but Los Angeles defenseman Drew Doughty blasted a shot past goaltender Louis Domingue to put the Kings up 1-0.

The box went silent for a few minutes after the goal, as Chayka and Sullivan -- along with goaltending coach Jon Elkin, who sat on the far right side -- tried to digest what had just happened. Then Chayka and Sullivan started to chat and saw they were on the same page.

"We got caught out there with three forwards. We kind of lost our structure for a second, and [when you do that] good teams make you pay," Chayka said.

The period ended with the Coyotes down 1-0 -- and they eventually lost the game 4-1 -- but Chayka had seen progress from his team and a few blocks to build on for the rest of the game, leading into opening night. 

"It's an evaluation game. I thought the way [Tocchet] used his bench was really effective for trying to understand players in different positions," Chayka said. "I think 5-on-5, we outplayed them. Obviously, we took some penalties. We know they're trying to crack down on slashing, and we just can't do it, so we cleaned that up, and some of that is just a learning thing where it's new to slashing rules. We learned from our mistakes. I think our young guys will, and we'll just keep evolving, so I was happy."

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