John Chayka

Coyotes sign GM Chayka to long-term extension

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GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — John Chayka arrived in the desert with an analytics background and made a big splash when, at 26, he became the youngest general manager in North American sports history.

As Chayka started to rebuild the Arizona Coyotes into playoff contenders, the recognition grew.

On Monday, the Coyotes rewarded Chayka, signing him to a long-term contract extension.

”I think the key thing is we’re on the right track. We’ve had a solid process and that’s always the main thing,” Chayka said. ”Obviously, you’re never satisfied until you reach your goals. We want to win a championship here, but it starts with making the playoffs and getting your foot in the door.”

Chayka was hired in 2015 as assistant general manager, analytics after co-founding the hockey analytics firm Stathletes.

Chayka was elevated to GM when Don Maloney was fired in 2016. He began rebuilding Arizona’s roster in hopes of revitalizing a franchise that was among the NHL’s worst in both attendance and wins.

The Coyotes struggled with injuries early in Chayka’s tenure, but were in postseason contention a year ago, finishing four points out of the final Western Conference playoff spot. With an added scoring boost to go with its staunch defense, Arizona has opened this season 9-6-2, right in the thick of the Western Conference race.

”John is one of the brightest and hardest-working general managers in the entire NHL and over the past four seasons, he has done an excellent job of rebuilding our franchise and transforming the Coyotes into a contender,” Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo said in a statement. ”I am fully confident that John is the right person to lead us moving forward and help us bring the Stanley Cup to Arizona.”

Chayka has been praised for revamping a team that had been one of the NHL’s best defensively and worst offensively.

Through trades and free agency, Chayka has brought in players like Nick Schmaltz, Derek Stepan, Carl Soderberg, Antti Raanta, Darcy Kuemper and Michael Grabner. Arizona also drafted Clayton Keller, Jakob Chychrun and Barrett Hayton under Chayka.

The Coyotes made the big splash of the 2019 offseason, acquiring productive winger Phil Kessel in a trade with Pittsburgh.

All-Star defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Keller, Schmaltz, Chychrun and forward Christian Dvorak are all under long-term extensions, putting Arizona not only in position for success this season, but for many to come.

”We’ve got a good young group and we’ve got a lot of good veterans that have helped along the way and are helping develop these guys and are good players themselves, which is tough to find those types of quality people and quality players that can come in and help support the youth,” Chayka said. ”It’s one of those things where until you achieve your goals it’s tough to be too reflective on things, but ultimately we feel like we’re in a good place, we’re on the right track and still lots to go in terms of achieving our goals.”

Offensive upgrades helping playoffs become expectation for Coyotes

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The obstacles of struggling to score goals and staying healthy didn’t force the Arizona Coyotes to wither and eye the NHL draft lottery last season. Instead, it was a “next man up” mentality that head coach Rick Tocchet continued to bark out to his players that put the team deep into the race for one of the Western Conference wild card spots.

The effects of losing a different teammate seemingly every week to another injury could have led to a team fading away, but the Coyotes’ close proximity to the wild card race was a key factor in not letting the situation take a toll on the roster.

“It’s a big kudos to our coaching staff and our general manager and our leadership group and our young guys to stick with the process, even though we had new bodies coming in almost every day,” Coyotes forward Derek Stepan told NBC Sports during last week’s NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago.

The Coyotes finished with 386 man-games to injury or illness last season, third-highest in the NHL. But their goaltending, led by Darcy Kuemper, who filled in for the injured Antti Raanta, was a big bright spot, as was their penalty kill, which tied for league best at 85%. The area of goal scoring, however, needed some help. Their 131 even strength goals were worst in the league, per Natural Stat Trick. To help solve that problem Alex Galchenyuk was traded to Pittsburgh for Phil Kessel, who is currently 43 goals away from 400 in his career.

[MORE: How Phil Kessel can transform Coyotes’ offense]

It’s the confidence built up after overcoming last season’s hurdles and the addition a top offensive star in Kessel that has Stepan believing the playoffs can be a reality next spring.

“I certainly don’t see why we wouldn’t expect that,” Stepan said. “We were close last year. I think Chayka did a really good job of adding pieces to help us on the offensive side of the puck. It comes with that work ethic that we had at the end of last year, we kind of built that identity. I’m going into [the season] expecting to be in the playoffs this year.”

Stepan, who wasn’t sure yet if Tocchet would start him on a line with Kessel, added that the trade “re-energized” the Coyotes roster and with some internal improvements what held them back last season won’t stand in their way in 2019-20.

As far as integrating Kessel’s unique personality into what he described as a tight-knit dressing room, the veteran Stepan is eager to add the sniper to the group.

“I’m OK with him being a different cat,” Stepan said. “We’ve got a lot of dogs on our team. We could use a cat.”

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Coyotes betting big on questionable core

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The Arizona Coyotes are the NHL’s strange beasts.

For years, they suffered through shoestring budgets as their ownership and arena woes continued into infinity. While there still seems to be some turmoil in that area – their majority owner once again changed this summer – they’re now becoming a team that raises your eyebrows for seemingly spending more than expected.

Wednesday’s announcement of Clayton Keller‘s eight-year, $57.2 million extension serves as the exclamation point on that sentence.

Consider the players who are now under long-term deals in Arizona:

Keller ($7.15M cap hit starting in 2020-21; runs through 2027-28): Many are pointing out that Keller’s contract now makes William Nylander‘s often-criticized deal look quite reasonable, while others groan that with Keller set to carry a $7.15M cap hit, it sets a higher floor for other RFAs, from Kyle Connor this summer to Nico Hischier entering his contract year.

As PHT’s writeup notes, the Coyotes are betting that the 21-year-old has a high ceiling, thus making this a signing with foresight.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson ($8.25M starting this season, goes through 2026-27): For quite some time, there was angst about OEL leaving the lowly Coyotes for greener pastures. Then the Coyotes sent all of that green his way, really setting the table for this run of early extensions, as they signed Ekman-Larsson at basically the first possible moment in July 2018.

So, the good news is that they kept the Swede in Arizona for the long-term future. The bad news is that it’s possible OEL might not be quite the difference-maker they’re paying for. The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn listed Ekman-Larsson as an honorable mention for one of the worst contracts in the NHL (sub required).

None of this is to say that OEL is a bad player. Instead, it keeps with the theme that it seems like the Coyotes are paying premiums for players who haven’t yet produced truly premium all-around results.

Nick Schmaltz ($5.85M through 2025-26), Jakob Chychrun ($4.6M through 2024-25), Christian Dvorak ($4.45M through 2024-25): Again, these players aren’t necessarily “bad,” it’s just surprising to see so many of them get so much term without overly obvious savings right off the bat. It’s the sort of hastiness you’d expect from a team that’s been contending, not one that’s had money troubles for ages and has missed the playoffs for seven seasons in a row.

Beyond that questionable core, the Coyotes are also spending a considerable chunk of change on veteran players like Phil Kessel, Derek Stepan, Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Antti Raanta, and Jason Demers.

Even if you give the Coyotes some leeway for absorbing Marian Hossa‘s dead contract, it’s honestly jarring that they technically are out of cap space heading into 2019-20, according to Cap Friendly.

Now, sure, this is a team that nearly made the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs despite a plague of injuries, and with all of this youth and the potential boost of Kessel’s sniping, could very well make it in 2019-20 — particularly in a Pacific Division that seems weak on paper.

Still, it remains a bit baffling that the Coyotes are spending this much for a team that doesn’t necessarily wow you with its overall talent.

That said, the Coyotes seem like they’re approaching RFAs as a market inefficiency, and if any players will prove your risks right, it’s young ones. While OEL is already 28, Keller is 21, Chychrun’s run of injuries make him a mystery of sorts at 21, and so on. As we’ve seen with Leon Draisaitl at $8.5M per year, seemingly shaky contracts can end up looking like steals, at least when it comes to players entering their primes.

The Coyotes have to hope this all works out as planned, as they’re gambling big on all of this term for young players, and some pretty big bucks for veterans.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Coyotes sign Keller to massive eight-year, $57.2M extension

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Arizona Coyotes GM John Chayka described Clayton Keller as “elite in every sense of the word” in Wednesday’s press release. Considering the eight-year, $57.2 million extension Keller was handed, the Coyotes certainly are paying him as such.

This means that Keller, 21, will carry a whopping $7.15M cap hit beginning in the 2020-21 season, as he’s about to enter the final year of his entry-level contract.

“Clayton is elite in every sense of the word,” Chayka said. “He is not only an All-Star and one of the premiere offensive playmakers in the league, but he is equally special as a person with his drive and determination to be great. We are thankful to Clayton for believing in our future and look forward to him playing a vital role on this team for many years to come. We are also very appreciative of Mr. Meruelo’s willingness to invest in our future and solidify one of our core players here in Arizona for a long time.”

Keller’s agent confirmed details, including the structure (cue ominous music for lockout protection):

After bursting onto the NHL scene with a 23-goal, 65-point rookie campaign, Keller suffered through a sophomore slump in 2018-19, sinking to 14 goals and 47 points. Clearly, that regression — and any other potential pitfalls – did not sway the Coyotes from making this bold investment.

Chayka continues to be a fascinating GM, as while he has something of an analytics background, he also seems to walk to the beat of his own drum. In many cases, that means making sometimes surprising investments, like signing Christian Dvorak through 2024-25.

The analytics community has not been kind to handing Keller such a massive deal, some going as far as to call it “disastrous.”

Evolving Hockey doesn’t love Keller’s chances of justifying a $6.4M cap hit, let alone a $7.15M mark:

Of course, Keller is very young, and could see growth that makes criticisms look unfair in retrospect. Maybe Keller would have driven his leverage through the ceiling by combining his splendid playmaking skills with Phil Kessel‘s elite sniping?

Again, the Coyotes are spending big while hoping that they’re right, and others are wrong.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Q&A: Coyotes GM John Chayka on dealing with injuries, Tocchet’s influence

Winners of eight of their last 10 games, the Arizona Coyotes have crawled up the Western Conference standings and have surprisingly played their way into the wild card race. With a roster that is second in the NHL with over 300 man-games lost to injury, they currently sit three points behind the Minnesota Wild with a game in-hand.

In the thick of the wild card race, you won’t find Coyotes general manager checking his phone to see the out-of-town scoreboard or updated standings on a nightly basis, however.

“You know what, we’ve got so many things going on here, and our guys have been on a roll that I just know if we keep taking care of things and keep winning we’ll be in a good spot,” Chayka told Pro Hockey Talk on Friday. “I can honestly tell you I don’t do a ton of scoreboard watching.”

While only three of their final 11 games in March are against teams currently occupying playoff positions, every game for the last few weeks has been “playoff mode” for the Coyotes. Fortunately for them, the players have stepped as injuries ravaged the lineup, including Darcy Kuemper, who’s played a career high in games (41) this season after Antti Raanta went down.

“This is the story of our season,” Chayka said. “A guy gets an opportunity they might not of otherwise had with some of the injuries and he steps up and elevates his game. He’s been a big story for us. He’s been a rock for us back there. He gives the guys a lot of confidence and allows them to go and play their game. Credit to [head coach Rick Tocchet], too, because he’s got the guys playing a very detail-oriented system, limiting chances and when there are chances given up, obviously Darcy’s done a nice job of stopping them. Any time you get a guy like that to step up, a goalie, be a No. 1 and stop as many pucks as he has, it’s a good thing for us.”

We spoke to Chayka about the Coyotes dealing with injuries, his approach to the NHL trade deadline, Dylan Strome’s success in Chicago and more.

Enjoy.

Q. What’s impressed you most about your team this season and the way they’ve taken to the “next man up” mentality with all the injuries?

CHAYKA: “Just the leadership, and as a result, the resiliency. Rick Tocchet’s the ultimate leader of our team as a head coach. He hasn’t wavered, he hasn’t complained, he hasn’t felt sorry for us the next day after a big injury or two — it just seemed like every day we were getting a different one. He’s done a great job of keeping guys steady and obviously, [Oliver] Ekman-Larsson, first year as captain, new role. Some guys have trouble with it, some guys excel. I think he’s excelled. Him and Tocc together have been a great leadership duo through the good times and the bad here.”

Q. Was there a point this season where another guy went down and you’re like, ‘Come on, really?'”

CHAYKA: “Yeah, I lost count after a certain number. You know, injuries are part of the game. I think we did everything in our power in the off-season to add as much depth as possible in the event that you lose some guys. It’s not just the number of games lost, it’s really been the combinations of premium position players that have gone down. That’s been the frustrating part, but everyone deals with injuries. I think our guys have done a helluva job of managing it and staying steady. Now we’re in a place where we’re getting some guys back, too, and ready to make a push. It’s out of your control, for the most part, so you deal with it.”

Q. Are you surprised that with 300-plus man games lost you’re right in the mix for a wild card spot this late in the year?

CHAYKA: “If you had told me that was the case when we were perfectly healthy we probably would have taken that, too. We’ve shown great improvement year over year. Our young players continue to get better and continue to drive us and we want to play meaningful games down the stretch here and get ourselves a chance to play in the playoffs. We’ve had to weather the storm a little bit through the year. In a lot of ironic ways it’s been a really good season and hopefully our guys can have a good run down the stretch here and get us in.”

Q. You don’t want to make a panic move in response to injuries, but were you a little more aggressive around the trade deadline in seeking out some additional help to try and boost this chase for a playoff spot?

CHAYKA: “We worked hard at the deadline. We had a lot of conversations. We looked to improve our group. I think the key was that we’ve got a group here that’s done a good job and got us this far and in order to improve on our group we had to get a really good player. The status quo with some of these guys that come up, the [Conor] Garlands and the [Mario] Kempes and [Lawson] Crouses have elevated their games, and [Josh] Archibald’s been one of our better players the last number of games here. If someone was coming in to displace a player, they had to be a really good player. We wanted to do something that could make sense for now and in the future. We were willing to do some moves that we thought would part with significant futures, but it had to be the right fit, and unfortunately we weren’t able to find something that made sense. But again, we believe in this group. They’ve brought us this far and we thought we owed it to them to see it through and allow them to sink or swim, and so far they’ve been doing a heckuva job.”

Q. A number of players on the roster are young and have yet to experience playoff hockey. Playoffs or not this season, the intensity of the games of late has to be providing them with some valuable experience going forward.

CHAYKA: “Yeah, the last few months the [Jakob] Chychruns, the Kellers, the [Christian] Dvoraks, the [Christian] Fischers, Garlands, they’re all learning a lot and they’re learning by trial by fire right now. It’s great and it’s good experience for them. But I also know that these are guys that we selected for a reason and made them a part of our core future because they won at all levels, they expect to win, they expect to be the best, and they’re not taking anything for granted down the stretch. They want to get in, they want to be the best and that’s what drives these guys, and that’s why I think we’ll have success.”

Q. Do you look at what Dylan Strome has done in Chicago since the trade, and even Max Domi in Montreal, and ask yourself, ‘Did we give up on them too early?’

CHAYKA: “Our goal through trades is you draft players that you can draft and develop, but at some point you’re drafting for asset value and you’ve got to put together a team. You’re trying to find the right combination and right chemistry for your group. Obviously with Alex Galchenyuk, you get a pure goal scorer, a guy that can shoot them with the best in the league. There were many times last year where we were in a tight game, 1-1, with five minutes left and we get a chance and we can’t score and the other team gets a chance and their guys score and we lose the game. This year the tables have turned in that sense where Alex and Vinnie Hinostroza, some of these guys have come in and they’ve made a big play at the right time and that’s what we were looking for.

“You get a young scorer like Alex, [that] was something we were after and you’ve got to give to get. The same thing with Nick Schmaltz. With our system, with our style of play, we felt like speed through the middle of the ice is a rare asset and [he’s] a guy that can not only skate but make plays and make his teammates better and linemates better and think at a very high level and skate with a guy like Clayton Keller. We thought that that was something that really aligned with our vision of how we wanted to build out our team. 

“We traded some good players and we got some good players in return. The end result will be what our group does here and so far we’ve been able to string together a really good stretch of games with a really good team. That was our goal in making those trades.”

Q. What characteristics did you see in Rick Tocchet that made him your No. 1 choice when seeking a head coach?

CHAYKA: “I don’t think people know who good of a coach this guy is. Just to see him day in, day out with what he’s capable of doing. His ability to wear many different hats and do it in a way that is very genuine, I think that’s been the key. He’s a hard-driving guy. He wants to win, he’s passionate, he’s won at all levels and won at the highest level in his career as a player and a coach. He knows what it takes and wants to impress upon our group what it does take. When I was hiring a head coach I was looking for a partnership, someone that can come in and I can work with that had a shared vision that I could trust. I’ve allowed Tocc to run his team and develop the systems and culture he thought would be best and so far he’s done a phenomenal job of that. 

“He doesn’t get enough credit for turning around a culture and a franchise and getting us on the right track and getting the most out of his players every single night. That’s what he’s done.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.