When he was made the youngest GM in NHL history, John Chayka was taking the helm of a moribund Arizona Coyotes franchise that had little in the way of hope. The expected rise, one that had been teased only to fall flat for several seasons, hadn’t come. In fact, instead of climbing the Western Conference, the Coyotes were sliding further instead of taking the incremental steps to playoff contention.
But following a 16-point improvement and flirtation with a wild-card berth last season and the accumulation of 20 points from their first 17 games this season – 22 points in 18 games following Monday’s victory over the Washington Capitals – Arizona finally finds themselves on a post-season worthy points pace, looking like a potentially 100-point team that could punch its ticket to the dance for the first time in eight seasons. And with the rise seemingly here and some real honest-to-goodness promise, the Coyotes rewarded Chayka with a long-term extension Monday.
"As we continue in our mission to make the Coyotes one of the premier franchises in the National Hockey League and in all of professional sports, John's visionary leadership in building our team is a foundational bedrock of this pursuit," Coyotes president and CEO Ahron Cohen said of Chayka’s extension, according to team’s website. "John's intellect, grit, entrepreneurial spirit and creativity are world class, and I know we have the right person at the helm to bring great days ahead here in Arizona for our Coyotes family.”
Of course, like any GM, Chayka has had his swings and misses. The Alex Galchenyuk-Max Domi swap hasn’t worked out in Arizona’s favor. He spent one season with the Coyotes and mustered 41 points but struggled to break out of anything more than a middle-six role. Meanwhile, Domi notched 28 goals and 72 points. There’s also been some questioning of the long-term deals Chayka has handed out to young players such as Nick Schmaltz, Christian Dvorak and Jakob Chychrun. The Dvorak and Chychrun contracts, specifically, were puzzling, particularly as the ink dried before either had proven without question they’re absolutely worth the long-term investment, even if the respective $4.45-million and $4.6-million price tags aren’t exorbitant.
But despite a misstep here or there, Chayka’s earned the trust of the Coyotes’ front office, and there are a handful of moves in particular that have led to his new extension. Here’s a look at five of his best:
5. Keller becomes the first selection of the Chayka era – June 24, 2016
Hindsight being what it is the Keller pick seems a no-brainer now. Selected seventh overall in 2016, Keller was a Calder Trophy finalist in 2017-18 after getting off to a quick start and has been a top-six fixture the Coyotes since his arrival. The thing about the pick, however, is that it somewhat off the board at the time.
In several pre-draft rankings, Keller was considered a top-10 prospect, and in The Hockey News’ own Draft Preview issue, the diminutive center – he was listed at 5-foot-10, 170 pounds ahead of the draft – ranked 12th among the top prospects. Included ahead of Keller? Olli Juolevi, Alexander Nylander, Mikhail Sergachev, Jakob Chychrun (who was selected 16th overall by the Coyotes), Michael McLeod and Tyson Jost. Not a single one of those players has outproduced Keller since the 2016 draft. The 21-year-old, who inked an eight-year, $57.2-million extension ahead of the season, has the offensive ability to be a consistent top producer for the Coyotes and one of the pieces around which the attack can be and has been built.
4. Coyotes flip Strome, Perlini to Blackhawks for Schmaltz – Nov. 25, 2018
Truthfully, the full story of this trade can’t be told quite yet. It’s too soon. We’re still operating in a time of early returns. That said, Strome’s 51-point performance last season once he arrived in Chicago didn’t stop anyone from calling the trade for the Blackhawks. But maybe the needle is beginning to shift back to the middle with Schmaltz netting four goals and 15 points in 18 games this season, bringing him to 29 points in 35 games in Arizona. On a per-game basis, the two players have actually performed at almost identical rates.
What makes this move a success for the Coyotes almost regardless of production, however, is that it gave coach Rick Tocchet a player with whom he knew how to work and not one that he couldn’t figure out how to use properly. Strome was mired in a minor role in Arizona, but Schmaltz almost immediately jumped into the top six and has been a power-play fixture for the at-times offensively starved Coyotes.
3. Coyotes land Hjalmarsson from Blackhawks for Murphy, Dauphin – June 23, 2017
Chayka’s first order of business in Arizona was to address a blueline that had been cobbled together out of spare parts and was arguably the worst in the NHL despite being led by Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The Coyotes GM did that early with the acquisition of Alex Goligoski from the Dallas Stars and by moving up in the first round of the 2016 draft, the payment for taking on Pavel Datsyuk’s dead weight from the Detroit Red Wings, to select Chychrun. But the defense corps in Arizona was still thin and lacked a legitimate shutdown rearguard. Chayka solved that his second summer on the job by leveraging the Blackhawks’ lack of cap space into a deal for Niklas Hjalmarsson.
While staying healthy has been difficult for the defensive-minded blueliner – he missed 34 games in his first season and has been sidelined for all but four this season – Hjalmarsson’s impact has been undeniable. Measured against all Coyotes who have skated at least 500 minutes at five-a-side over the past three seasons, Hjalmarsson ranks first among all defensemen and fourth overall with a 52.2 expected goals for percentage. That’s despite the fact he ranks last in offensive zone start percentage. Others are the sizzle, but 'Hammer' is the steak of the Coyotes defense.
2. Arizona acquires Kuemper from Los Angeles for Rieder, Wedgewood – Feb. 21, 2018
There wasn’t much thought of the deal at the time and with good reason. Kuemper was making league minimum as a second-stringer with the Kings in an effort to rejuvenate his career and Los Angeles was looking to add some additional scoring punch. It seemed a swap that was much more meaningful for the playoff-bound Kings than it was the Coyotes. Funny how things work out. By the off-season, Rieder was let walk and he hasn’t found near the success elsewhere that he had in Arizona. Kuemper, on the other hand, is turning in Vezina Trophy-caliber work.
Kuemper stepped up in the back half of last season with Antti Raanta sidelined and pieced together a performance that not only earned Kuemper a fifth-place Hart Trophy vote but saw him finish fifth in Vezina voting. His .925 save percentage and 2.33 goals-against average by season’s end were career-best marks and ranked fifth and fourth, respectively, among goaltenders with at least 41 games played. Kuemper’s out to prove that he’s no flash in the pan, either, and doing well in that regard. Among the 57 goaltenders who have played at least five games this season, Kuemper ranks sixth with a .930 SP and fourth with a 2.08 GAA.
The bonus for Chayka is that the decision to ink Kuemper to an extension on the day of his arrival means he's carrying a mere $1.85-million cap hit this season. That increases to $4.5 million in the first campaign of a two-year extension.
1. Coyotes hire Rick Tocchet – July 11, 2017
Not a single one of the Coyotes’ moves throughout Chayka’s tenure would mean a thing if the organization didn’t have an on-ice identity, which they struggled with during the early part of Chayka’s tenure. Dave Tippett was on his way out as bench boss and, despite adding pieces, Arizona continued to look like a bottom-feeding club. So, with Tippett stepping down as coach and Arizona in need of a change, Chayka brought in Tocchet, who was fresh off of two Stanley Cup victories with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Tocchet’s teams haven’t necessarily played the most run-and-gun, edge-of-your-seat hockey, but when he arrived, the Coyotes had near-consistently league-worst underlying numbers. Over his two-plus seasons, though, Arizona has slowly but surely turned into a club with decent advanced stats and one with quality defensive numbers. The Coyotes, who are middle of the pack in five-a-side Corsi percentage, rank top-10 in high-danger chance percentage and allow the sixth-fewest high-danger chances against per hour of 5-on-5 ice time. Pairing that with quality goaltending from Kuemper and Raanta has been the secret to the success the Coyotes are experiencing this season.
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