By the time John Chayka was born in the summer of 1989, David Poile had been a GM in the NHL for seven seasons. Lou Lamoriello was two years into his job as the president and GM of the New Jersey Devils, and Ken Holland was a western Canada scout for the Detroit Red Wings. And Jim Rutherford had already been named the executive of the year – in the OHL.
As the youngest GM in NHL history – the youngest in the history of any professional sport, according to the Arizona Coyotes – Chayka will soon be talking trades and wheeling and dealing with men who were plying their trades since before he was born. How well he does will be a referendum on the analytics industry.
Yes, numbers are a huge part of Chayka’s hockey expertise. But sometimes you just have to go with your gut. And Chayka knows that well. He will marry Kathryn Lahaie next summer, a girl he met on his first day of school at Western University in London, Ont., in 2010. Falling in love with the first person you meet on your first day in university? Not a terribly analytical thing to do, is it? “It was calculus class, if that makes it any better,” Chayka said. “It was a purely emotional judgment call. It was pretty much immediate, to be honest. I can make a decision when I see value.”
Chayka had just turned 20 when he showed up at Western, his plans of playing varsity hockey at Cornell University scuttled by serious back problems that ended his career. He had played much of his minor hockey with Jordan Nolan, and one of his coaches growing up was Jordan’s father, former NHL coach Ted Nolan. But Chayka had already been way ahead of the curve when it came to planning for life after hockey. He had started a hockey development model and already established Stathletes, a hockey analytics company he founded with his brother-in-law, Neil Lane, and sister, Meghan, which provided the springboard to Chayka’s rapid ascension to Arizona’s GM chair. The business that literally started in his parents’ basement is now the world’s largest hockey analytics company with 50 employees and NHL clients that include the Vancouver Canucks. In fact, it was originally a business pitch to the Coyotes that sold the organization not only on Stathletes, but Chayka, who became their assistant GM last summer, one year after graduating from university.
Until now, the youngest GM in NHL history was Gord Stellick, who took over the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1988 at the age of 30. And we all know how that turned out. But Stellick came from a media relations background and was essentially thrown to the wolves by a deranged owner. The situation in Arizona isn’t ideal. Otherwise the Coyotes wouldn’t have fired Don Maloney, whose rebuild philosophy was starting to yield some promising results. And anytime a part-owner installs himself as president of hockey operations, the way Gary Drummond did after joining ownership group, it doesn’t scream conventionality. But Chayka has a solid hockey foundation and a firm grip on analytics, and he’ll lean heavily on coach Dave Tippett, who added the title of executive vice-president, hockey operations after winning a power struggle with Maloney over the speed of the team’s rebuild. It’s an indication they’ll be more aggressive in their building plan, and they’ve placed someone with one year of front office experience as one of their main stewards.
That doesn’t seem to faze Chayka. To be sure, he brings unique strengths to the position, but he realizes his job will be about more than analyzing zone entries and 5-on-5 shooting percentage. There are contract negotiations, drafting and developing players, running a minor league operation and a host of duties you can’t take care of simply by applying a formula. Hockey’s old guard is probably waiting for him to fall flat on his face to prove the eye test is still the better way to evaluate players than analytics.
“I don’t feel as though I’m carrying a torch for any type of movement whatsoever,” Chayka said. “I feel pressure to win, but I put that pressure on myself. I have my approach and my way I want to try to solve a problem here. I don’t think it puts any pressure on me, and it’s not something I’m thinking about at all.”
There’s much work to do with the Coyotes, and more than a little to be excited about. Arizona has one of the best prospects outside the NHL in Dylan Strome, budding stars in Max Domi and Anthony Duclair, an established stud defenseman in Oliver Ekman-Larsson and two first-round picks in the draft. Relocation speculation has quelled for the time being, and the Coyotes have moved their minor pro affiliate to Tucson. But they have only two defensemen and seven forwards signed for next season. And there is the business of re-signing captain and franchise icon Shane Doan, who had a season in 2015-16 that hasn’t been talked about enough for how good it was. “Everyone is looking to improve their team, and that’s what I’m looking to do as well,” Chayka said. “We want to win a championship here.”