Coyotes' 27-Year-Old GM Eyeing the Long Road to Becoming Hockey's Theo EpsteinNovember 10, 2016
DENVER — John Chayka came striding through a Pepsi Center walkway Tuesday morning, on his way up the stands to watch the Colorado Avalanche's morning skate. Wearing a sharply tailored gray suit, the tall, slender Arizona Coyotes general manager wore white Apple earbuds as he talked into an iPhone while carrying a sleek Apple Macbook Air.
Other than an absent venti Starbucks latte, Chayka looked like any other on-the-go, techy millennial. While he is just that, Chayka somehow crashed one of the biggest old-boy networks in sports, that of NHL GM. Last summer, the Coyotes made the then-26-year-old Chayka the youngest GM in league history, entering a fraternity whose average age at the time of his hire was 53.
Chayka, a native of Jordan Station, Ontario, knows there are a lot of old-school cynics skeptical he can find success with his analytics-based philosophies of what makes a good hockey player, but he didn't seem fazed by them or much else a month into his new job.
"I think stress is fun," Chayka said. "Maybe I'm a stress junkie, but if I didn't have stress in my life and my job, I'd be looking for something to create some stress to be quite honest. I enjoy it; I embrace it. I think it's the fun part of it; it means you have expectations, that you're striving to do something that's not easy to do; that hasn't been done before."
Chayka is trying to do something that most certainly has never been done before, which is bring a Stanley Cup to Arizona—a franchise that has been plagued by arena and ownership hassles almost from day one. One person Chayka draws inspiration from in his quest is Chicago Cubs GM Theo Epstein, who has broken two legendary curses already with World Series titles in Boston and Chicago and who became the youngest GM in major league history with Boston at 28, in 2002.
Chayka, in fact, developed an email relationship recently with Epstein and has plans to meet him at some point soon.
To him, "Analytics Guy" is not an insult.
"I think it's fair; it's certainly easy (a label), considering my background. I think it all depends on your perception of the label," Chayka said. "Is Theo Epstein an analytics guy? I think he probably is, based off his background, and it seems to be working out alright for him. But I leave the labels to other people, and I just act how I act and am who I am."
Chayka's Coyotes beat the Avalanche 4-2 later that night to improve their record to 5-7-0. That still puts them near the bottom of the Western Conference, so any Chayka as "Boy-Wonder-Miracle-Worker" headlines have yet to materialize. That no doubt has made some of the anti-analytics crowd feel good, presumably including Columbus coach John Tortorella, who had this to say on the subject to the Columbus Dispatch's Aaron Portzline the other day (h/t Peter Hassett of RMNB).
"I'd rather spend time doing that than listening to this crap about the Corsi and the Fenwick, because those stats do not apply. I don't care what anybody says in this league; they don't apply to the game of hockey," Tortorella said. "The scoring chances for and [against] is what tells you the story of the individual player and your team concept, as far as what's going on."
Chayka, who along with partner Neil Lane founded the Ontario-based hockey analytics firm Stathletes, believes such statistics and many more do apply to the game of hockey. Every hockey coach, any GM, any player, any fan wants to see their team have the puck more than the other guys. Chayka believes he's found some of the ingredients to the secret sauce of how to best get and maintain puck possession and which types of players best jell in that pursuit.
"How you become a puck-possession team is very much unique and different in each individual circumstance. As you're building a team, yeah, you want to have complementary pieces that create synergies instead of redundancies that end up not really creating value for your group that you're paying millions of dollars for," said Chayka—a former junior player whose career was cut short by a serious back injury.
Chayka is still running the numbers on how to best assemble his kind of team, and it may take some time. The Coyotes have nine players who are 21 or younger, which it's believed no other team at any level of pro hockey can say at the moment. Yet, the Coyotes also have one of the league's oldest players in 40-year-old captain Shane Doan, who entered the league as a player when Chayka was five.
"It's kind of unbelievable when you think about that for a second, but John is the authority here, and we've approached it with the respect that positions deserves," said Doan, who signed a one-year contract this summer with Chayka's blessing. "I'm sure I don't fit into a lot of (his) numbers and things, so as a player you're always anxious about that stuff when things are changing, but at the same time John has been great with me, very respectful and I appreciate it so much."
Coyotes winger Jamie McGinn, 28, signed a three-year free-agent contract with Arizona over the summer largely, he said, from how impressed he was after having dinner with Chayka.
"He doesn't come across as just some kid. Sure, he's pretty young for someone in his position, but I was impressed by his knowledge of the game," McGinn said.
Chayka knows hockey is played on an ice sheet, not a spreadsheet. He also knows much of his job entails human psychology and learning how to relate his vision not just with numbers but also plenty of human interaction. That's the area, he indicated, where he's still learning and needs to continue to learn.
"The whole thing's a learning process. That's the fun part about it," he said. "But I don't find the (human) interactions awkward. I've always been kind of dealing with people that were older than me, no matter what I've been doing. I think people respect expertise. I think everyone has a desire to be treated with respect and to be honest and up front with them.
"At times, I'll err on the side of being too honest, but I think that's what they want as players. They want an opportunity to succeed, to do something special. That's my job, that's what the whole role of being a manager is, and I enjoy it."
A few minutes later, the Coyotes took the ice for their own morning skate. Chayka was back up in the stands, earbuds in and laptop open.
Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @Adater.