By Tom Hunter (@)
When John Chayka was promoted by the Arizona Coyotes this past May, he became the youngest General Manager in NHL history.
After retiring from junior hockey due to a back injury, Chayka began manually tracking advanced stats while working at a hockey school as a 19-year old. After transforming his tracking process into an analytics consulting firm – with the help of his business partner Neil Lane – Chayka jumped from a consultant evaluating junior players to the assistant General Manager of the Coyotes just over a year ago. After the one year of NHL management experience, the ownership group in Arizona showed how much confidence they have in Chayka’s work when they gave him the control over the front office and the ability to build the team as general manager.
In a league that more often than not falls back to it’s ‘Old Boys Club’ mentality, the hiring of Chayka is a bold decision based on risk analysis and forward thinking. The Coyotes are betting that Chayka’s process is ahead of the game and one that will give them a leg up going forward.
On Friday night, Chayka sat down at the head of an NHL draft table for the first time. When the draft was over, he showed that like Coyotes ownership, he wasn’t afraid to make bold moves.
Holding the seventh overall pick Friday night, nearly every draft analyst had the Coyotes selecting either one of the top defenders in the draft or the high flying winger from Mississauga, Alexander Nylander. Chayka did neither. With his first pick as an NHL GM, Chayka selected a dazzling center out of the US National Development Program – Clayton Keller.
Puck Daddy’s Greg Wyshynski described the move as “stunning the NHL”. While that a pretty big stretch, it was pretty surprising. Keller – who spent the season breaking records set by the 2016 Hart Trophy winner – was a selection that showed Chayka isn’t a guy who buys into the old school scouting mentality that we still see far too often .
Keller was viewed as the second-best center in the draft by some, but as a mid-first round pick by others. While the pick wasn’t shocking – it was bold. Keller’s size was a concern for many that still think centers in the NHL need to be big. Chayka showed that size doesn’t matter when you’re talking about a player that has the talent that will clearly translate to the NHL level.
Chayka’s night wasn’t finished when he added a player that could very well be ahead of Dylan Strome at the top of the Coyotes’ prospect depth chart. As the first round went on, Jakob Chychrun of the Sarnia Sting continued to be available much longer than many expected. Chychrun was viewed by some as the best defenseman in the draft, and as high as the sixth-best prospect. Even Craig Button – who was one of the most vocal critics of Chychrun’s game – had Chychrun as the 16th ranked prospect in the draft.
As Chychrun began to fall down the draft board, Chayka got on the phone and started calling teams in the middle fo the first round. The young general manager found a trading partner in Detroit. Ken Holland was desperate to move Pavel Datsyuk’s salary cap hit and Chayka identified a player that he found great value in dropping down the draft board.
The ability for Arizona to take on dead money helped the process along and the two teams were able to swing a deal. Arizona received Datsyuk’s contract and the 16th overall pick to draft Chychrun in exchange for the 20th overall pick and second rounder – 53rd overall – and the dead money of Joe Vitale.
Some on Twitter criticized Chayka for paying too much to move up only four draft spots -although the critics didn’t have any knowledge whatsoever of the value of the picks on the draft floor. Given the fact that Winnipeg paid more to move up a couple slots just 15 minutes laters, I am not inclined to say Arizona paid too much for the right to draft Chychrun. Regardless of what you think of the trade, Chayka made a bold move. Trading up to get the player he identified as having value beyond his cost.
Thanks to an aggressive strategy from their young general manager, the Arizona Coyotes left the first round of the draft with two blue-chip prospects – something that no other team was able to accomplish.
How did John Chayka follow up his Friday night performance? He opened Saturday morning with a trade. Chayka traded the 37th overall pick to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for prospect Anthony DeAngelo.
One of the major criticisms of the trade to draft Chychrun as that the Datsyuk contract would prohibit the Coyotes from being able to afford the right-handed defender the team desperately needs. Chayka handled that with another bold move when he traded for DeAngelo. The team acquired a right shooting defender that was great in the AHL last year and will likely step directly into the Coyotes lineup next season. DeAngelo is on an entry level contract so is a cheap option to go along with the newly signed Alex Goligoski – who Chayka aggressively pursued prior to the free agency period.
Add to his weekend the drafting of defensive prospect Cam Dineen from North Bay – who fell well below where many thought he would be drafted – and John Chayka proved he has no problem being aggressive while he learns how to be an NHL general manager. A trait that hits close to home as it closely resembles the way Alex Anthopolous handled his time as the young general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays.
While it is way too early to make any declarations about the outcome, it seems like John Chayka and the Coyotes had a very good draft week. That said, only time can tell how these moves will play out in the organization’s attempt to build a contender. The one certainty is that the young general manager doesn’t seem to be bound by the conservative nature that seems to hamper many of his older counterparts.