John Chayka views the Arizona Coyotes no differently than a brand new company.
Turning the team around requires the same amount of work and overall dusk-til-dawn approach as a corporation in the earliest part of its existence.
The 27-year-old Chayka said he rises at 5:30 a.m. in his Scottsdale home to head to the team offices in order to beat local traffic. His day is then mostly full of phone calls and working with his team before he finally goes to bed late at night.
“I get a quick workout in and get down to business because a lot of these guys are on the East Coast so I deal with them early on and then we’ve got practice and dealing with the coaching staff and all of our staffs, so it’s a more than full-time job,” Chayka said in a sit-down interview with Puck Daddy at the recent NHL general managers meetings in Boca Raton, Fla. “I’ve got a wife who is very accepting and understanding and right now, it’s an investment. It’s no different than when I started any business. It’s a startup, it takes a lot of work up front to put in place a processes and hire the right people and that’s how I view this is basically as a startup and we’re kind of inching our way towards profitability but that’s the toughest part. Once this thing turns the corner, that’s when things get easier in terms of riding some momentum.”
While most people Chayka’s age are trying to enjoy their youthful years, the Coyotes general manager is being tasked with a very adult job of turning around an NHL organization that has fallen on tougher times the last several season. The Coyotes have missed the playoffs the last four seasons and will likely not make the postseason this year.
Last offseason the Coyotes named Chayka their general manager after a year as the team’s assistant general manager/analytics.
Prior to joining the Coyotes, he had co-founded and served as director of hockey operations at Stathletes Inc. since 2009, a hockey analytics firm that tracks data through video analysis process and breaks down the game to provide objective insight into player and team performance tendencies.
Chayka also never played at the professional level, reaching the BCHL before suffering a career ending injury.
His promotion then at the age of 26 made him the youngest person to be named a general manager out of the four major North American pro sports.
“I was sitting on the bench at the Hartford Whalers at his age, just playing hockey,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. “I wasn’t in management that’s for sure. I was just thinking about how to stay in the NHL is all I was doing. He’s certainly mature beyond the number of his age for sure and I think he has been that way his whole life. I think he’s very methodical and well-spoken. Just a mature guy.”
There is precedence in other sports for people like Chayka to come in at a young age and try to change how an organization operates.
Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels was one of the first of a group of younger general managers without pro playing experience that came into Major League Baseball last decade. In 2005 He became the youngest GM in the history of MLB at 28 years and 41 days and presided over the Rangers as they went from a middle-of-the-pack team to a group won back-to-back ALCS championships.
According to Daniels the biggest issue with being a young general manager wasn’t so much putting the team together. It was managing the people around him.
“The job doesn’t change whether you’re 27 or 67. The difference is experience, how you handle people, how people handle you, expectations, that whole deal. I think one of the things, one of the bigger challenges is just you’re managing folks with a lot more life experience than you have. So there are things that are affecting their lives that you haven’t walked yet. I’m talking about marriage and real life where no matter how good your ideas may be about the task at hand, you need everybody on the same page,” Daniels said. “You need the organization to run smoothly and to do that you have to manage people. I had not led a department directly when I got the job so it’s just a host of things that go along with that that I had a feel for but I hadn’t done, and so I think that’s the challenge.”
On the personal side, Chayka has seemed to figure this out quickly with some of his more experienced staff and won them over.
“John has done a great job managing his staff which includes all of our coaches, trainers, scouts and hockey operations personnel,” said Rich Nairn, the Coyotes executive vice president of communications and broadcasting who has been with the organization for 20 years. “He is a strong communicator and a good listener and he’s very respectful of everyone’s job and role with the team. He has a calm and confident demeanor and is very approachable and easy to talk to.”
On the hockey side he seems to have streamlined a lot of the Coyotes’ operations to his liking and gone a little further into stockpiling young players than his predecessor Don Maloney.
Chayka has gone all-in with using salary cap space to acquire assets, like he did in picking up Dave Bolland’s contract from the Florida Panthers to land Lawson Crouse and Pavel Datsyuk’s contract from the Detroit Red Wings to grab defenseman Jakob Chychrun in the 2016 NHL Draft.
Both Crouse and Chychrun seem like long-term assets for the Coyotes, and wouldn’t have been picked up if Chayka didn’t aggressively use his cap space as a negotiating chip.
The Coyotes dipped their toes into these waters a year earlier when they landed Chris Pronger’s contract from the Philadelphia Flyers – but not to this degree of peddling cap space across the league to teams that wanted to get rid of bad deals.
“Like anything, I think most of it is out of necessity. We have a market situation that is what it is in terms of our revenue and my job is just to optimize and maximize what I can do with that revenue,” Chayka said.
The addition of Chychrun was one of the more interesting moves by Chayka. It was his first major trade and was completed with longtime Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland – one of the faces of the league’s old guard. Overall Chayka showed no fear in making the deal because he wanted to land Chychrun so badly.
“I think you have to be confident in your knowledge and confident in what you’re doing,” Tippett said. “He has that and he has that inner confidence.”
It’s important to note that Maloney drafted the Coyotes’ young core that includes Christian Dvorak, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Max Domi, but Chayka has tried to perfect the organizational’s structure and use this foundation to build the team to his liking.
“He’s an intelligent guy that has an individual view on things but understands that there are other views other than his view also and as you spend time with him you just become comfortable in his knowledge and his approach and that’s the way it has been all year,” Tippett said.
Chayka’s methods with analytics have gotten the most fanfare in the past but he has also tried to lessen the overall burden on players as they deal with the rigors of an 82-game season.
For example, he sometimes has the Coyotes stay overnight at a stop after a game in order to maximize their rest when in the past the team may have quickly tried to travel to the next location. Chayka also said that that he uses heart-rate variability to check a players’ wear and tear during the season. This better helps him better figure out how to manage rest days.
“We make a lot of decisions based off of practice load, days off and things like that based off the information we received from that type of a test,” Chayka said. “We also measure their load in practices and monitor that with each player, so it’s important for our young players to understand their bodies and try to minimize and mitigate risk opportunities.”
As for the analytics side of how he builds a team, Chayka believes it’s important to take the emotion out of the business in order to figure out how to value a player.
“It’s instant analysis. I think just to have some objective information that didn’t draft the player or didn’t help develop the player and just say ‘here is where the player is at.’ I think that’s a helpful tool in kind of building the organization,” Chayka said. “We want to bring guys along in the right route and the right timeframe and try to get them to become the best players they possibly can while not minimizing their ceiling.”
If these moves were done by an older more experienced general manager, they maybe wouldn’t receive the same type of notoriety. But because Chayka is the NHL’s sole millennial GM, they’re picked apart and parsed in a different fashion. According to Daniels, “the novelty of it wears off” after the first year in regards to being a younger manager and then really the publicity becomes about the bottom line of the business.
“Now you’re in Year 2, Year 3. It’s production, it’s performance based, what’s your track record? What have you done? It’s like anything else, at that point no one cares how old you are,” Daniels said. “Once you have a track record it’s ‘what have you been able to accomplish?’ ‘What type of people do you hire?’ ‘The kind of philosophies that the organization espouses.’ Those are the things that matter ultimately. The age story wears off pretty quickly.”
In some respects, Chayka sees his age as a positive in how he can relate to players who often have to deal with people from an older generation in management who don’t speak the same ‘language’ per se.
“For me, I want to be a supportive person, help them out as I can because we’re all in this together and that’s mainly my approach with our players,” Chayka said. “I think they understand they can come to me with things and talk to me. Certainly our younger group, I think it’s easier for me to relate with them in a lot of ways too. I think there are some challenges with being younger but also at the same time, there are benefits.”
It’s also part of his story, and it’s impossible to deny that in a business known for its ‘old boys network’ he’s a younger and fresher face, which is certainly not a negative as the game looks to stay current and keep up with advances in technology.
“I can only be who I am and approach things the way I do. I don’t think – there are now 30 other managers, it’s a perfect relationship with those guys either. I just approached things the best I can and hope it works out for everybody” Chayka said. “I‘ve been able to make as many transaction as anyone since I took over so I don’t think that’s a hindrance whatsoever and just continue to kind of build relationships and that’s every industry and every business. So I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in industries and businesses for a while now and relationship building is a big part of that.”
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