John Chayka is 26 years old and will be the next GM of the Desert Dogs. An advanced stats man, Chayka could be part of a sea change in the way NHL teams hire management – though the traditional GM he replaced was pretty good, too.
Conventional wisdom sticks…until it doesn’t. The Blues could never beat the Blackhawks in the playoffs, nor could the Sharks beat the Kings…but this year they did. The Arizona Coyotes named 26-year-old John Chayka as the franchise’s new GM today. Chayka is an analytics man who quickly found favor with Coyotes ownership and now he’s getting the keys to the hockey department.
Well, maybe – yeah.
It just so happens that I’ve been speaking to a lot of agents lately about NHL GMs for an upcoming magazine feature. One point that several of these reps made is that you don’t have a lot cigar-chomping titans running the show anymore.
“The days of Harry Sinden are over,” said one agent.
Sure, Lou Lamoriello still cuts a mean deal over the negotiating table, but he also has an extensive network of talent around him in Toronto, from Kyle Dubas (the analytics darling who paved the way for hirings such as Chayka in the first place) and Brandon Pridham to Mark Hunter and big boss Brendan Shanahan.
For the most part, putting together a team is a collaborative effort these days. Capologists and legal experts wade in to negotiations and frame contract talks – so Jeff Solomon is just as important to the Kings as Dean Lombardi is when it comes to brokering deals with players and their agents.
Chayka will not be alone in Arizona, either. Coach Dave Tippett is expected to take on a bigger role in the hockey operations department and if you’re worried about Chayka never playing the game at a high level…well, Tippett was a longtime NHLer and he has been behind NHL benches even longer (and for the record, Chayka did play Jr. A for several seasons).
Really, this Chayka hire could be a very interesting case study that ends up influencing other teams. If a young GM can move to the top through cold, hard statistical analysis instead of only the more traditional “eye test” and “pay your dues” approach, then the pool for hirings becomes exponentially bigger. That’s bad news for experienced but unemployed people like George McPhee or the man Chayka is replacing – Don Maloney – but it certainly smashes the old boys network pretty quickly.
Think about it: If statistical analysis is the main prerequisite rather than NHL experience, why couldn’t a young woman be a GM? Given how slow the NHL’s culture works, that might take a while (we still have only one European GM in Columbus’ Jarmo Kekalainen and no European head coaches). But it’s an interesting topic to explore.
On the flip side, we all agree Maloney got a raw deal in Arizona, right? The man helped the most dysfunctional organization in the league make the playoffs three straight years (including a conference final) and then began a rebuild that now sees the Coyotes ranking first overall in our annual Future Watch issue thanks to youngsters such as Max Domi, Anthony Duclair and Dylan Strome.
Sure, the Mike Smith contract looks bad now (six years, $5.6 million cap hit), but the Oliver Ekman-Larsson contract looks awesome (six years, $5.5 million cap hit). And Maloney fostered a loyalty that has seen players such as Shane Doan and Antoine Vermette either stick around long-term or come back in short order after being dealt.
But there’s no use stewing about that now. Maloney will likely land on his feet because he’s really good at his job. Chayka will be scrutinized by many a crusty pundit until the next hot take is there to be had, but it will be fascinating to see how this plays out.
Nothing is ever boring in the desert, that’s for sure.
UPDATE: Yikes! Since this blog was posted, the Coyotes made the Chayka news official, but also announced that Tippett had been given a five-year contract extension and an increased role as executive vice-president of hockey operations, while part owner Gary Drummond is now the president of hockey operations. Now I’m sketched out a bit! From all appearances, Tippett will have a great deal of power now and Drummond – whose background is in the energy industry, not hockey – has been tasked with “ensuring an alignment of vision and objectives between ownership, management, coaches and the team’s core players,” according to an official release from the Coyotes.
Now, I ask you, dear reader: when has an active owner ever been good for a team’s on-ice product recently? Hopefully I’m wrong, but right now it doesn’t seem as though Chayka has a lot of sway as GM. What if the Coyotes are still bad two years from now, despite a wealth of good young players? Can Chayka fire coach Tippett? Guess my original ender still fits: it’s never boring in the desert.