You don’t think about the Arizona Coyotes. You might have even thought they were still the Phoenix Coyotes. No one really thinks about them, not even in the hockey world. When anyone does think about the Coyotes, it’s to either laugh at them, notice their favorite team is playing them late at night and decide to go to bed anyway, or in a “Oh right, them,” kind of way. It’s unfair to Coyotes fans, of which I assume there are some, that the only time they join any national conversation is to be mocked. But then again, if they’d win more than a handful of games, that would probably change.
It certainly didn’t this past weekend.
In case you missed it, and you did, on the eve of beginning the play-in round the NHL has set up against the Nashville Predators — the first games the Coyotes will play that even come close to mattering since 2012 — their GM John Chayka up and quit in a tiff with ownership. Don’t worry, it gets better and is not so simple.
The Coyotes were contacted by another organization about Chayka, it’s not really clear who and it’s not really clear if it was for a hockey-only role, which the Coyotes ownership denied him the chance to talk about. Made some sense, as they had just handed Chayka a contract extension in the fall. This caused a fissure in the relationship, which culminated in Chayka quitting. The Coyotes have hinted at taking this to the commissioner’s office, hoping to bar Chayka from working anywhere else for at least a while even if he won’t work for them.
Where this gets interesting is that Chayka might be something of a huckster and/or fraud.
When he was hired, Chayka was billed as the NHL’s first analytics-based GM. A “numbers’ guy, the type that the league had recoiled in disgust from ever since the idea of analytics entered the hockey lexicon. He wasn’t a former player, or scout. He was young (just 26), which was enough to make most think he was an analytics guy. Chayka, along with his sister Meghan, had founded Stathletes in 2010, a hockey analytical system that essentially acts as a player tracker. It’s hard to know what they do, because their info is contracted to some NHL teams, they won’t tell you how many, so their information and data is basically classified, and they won’t tell you.
If Chayka was indeed an analytics guy, and the hockey analytics crowd has never really claimed him, he certainly did a piss poor job of injecting that thinking into the Coyotes. In his three full seasons as GM, the Coyotes never came closer to a playoff spot than four points (which in the NHL’s absurdist standings-system is a much bigger gap than it sounds) and only finished above .500 once. This year, while they will get to play in the NHL’s restart, they were still four points away from a playoff spot with 12 games to go. They weren’t making that up.
Making things worse, the Coyotes weren’t any good by the stat-head numbers that Chayka was supposedly going to trumpet or boost. They were consistently a bottom-10 team in both Corsi-percentage (amount of shot-attempts a team takes compared to its opponent) and expected-goals percentage (goals a team is likely to produce given volume, type, and area of shots vs. their opponent if goaltending isn’t a factor). These are the first things the analytic-inclined look at when judging a team. Chayka’s Coyotes were consistently ass in these categories.
Chayka’s drafts were spotty at best. His first draft saw the Coyotes pick up Clayton Keller and Jakob Chychrun, who certainly are good but perhaps not franchise-turners. The rest of that draft and the three that came after that have yet to produce an NHL game other than Barret Hayden’s 20, and he was taken one spot ahead of Rookie Of The Year finalist Quinn Hughes.
Crushing Chayka’s image as an analytics guy was that his overall strategy was hard to pin down. They didn’t really go young and try to build organically, with Chayka trading for aging vets like Phil Kessel, Carl Soderberg, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Derek Stepan, among others. Of what would look to be the Coyotes “core” only four are under 25 (Keller, Connor Garland, Chychrun, and Christian Dvorak). And that “core” doesn’t really scream “contender.”
Compounding this is that the Coyotes are a capped-out team. Some of that is taking on Marian Hossa’s contract from the Hawks even while he lives permanently on long-term injury reserve. The idea of taking on those types of contracts is to net draft picks or prospects, but all the Coyotes netted out of it was third/fourth-line tweener Vinnie Hinostroza.
Chayka’s big swing was to trade three prospects and two draft picks for a couple months of Taylor Hall, who is a free agent after the year. Perhaps he could have sweet-talked Hall into staying long-term, but with this latest upheaval in the front office, that outcome certainly isn’t more likely.
The one area of success Chayka managed was getting plus-goaltending from first Antti Raanta and then Darcy Kuemper, but that could just as easily be chalked up to the work of goaltending coach Cory Schwab.
If the idea of hiring Chayka was to find an economical way to ice a team full of players that were undervalued by hockey in general, which is usually the dream of the analytic crowd, it’s either a complete failure or quite simply a misnomer. The Coyotes are expensive, not that young, and mediocre at best. Scanning their roster and salary, only Garland would be considered “economical” and he’s on his entry-level deal.
One of Chayka’s successes, if that can even be labeled plural, is getting Oliver Ekman-Larsson to re-sign long-term at the fourth-largest cap-hit for a defenseman in the league. OEL has since seen his analytic numbers take a dive this season, along with his point total, and he’s signed until he’s 36. Signing top players through their 30s might just be a necessary evil of the game today, but one would think Chayka’s supposed modern-thinking would find a way around that. It could just be one of those years for OEL, too.
Things get truly weird when you read this about Chayka studying players brains through MRIs to see if they have hockey IQ This is the kind of thing that makes you start to wonder if this wasn’t all “Hockey Theranos.” Just yesterday on The Score 650 in Vancouver, Elliote Friedman was saying that Chayka helped convince the current owners, Alex Mereulo and Andrew Barroway, to buy the team. Less than a year later, he’s going deuces.
Maybe worst yet is Chayka is jumping from a mess he created. The Coyotes are only $2M under next year’s cap, and that’s before any attempt to re-sign Hall. They’ll have to shed some bad contracts to make any moves, but this will be a league full of teams without flexibility to take on those bad contracts.
Whatever went on here was certainly not analytical, much less a “Moneyball” era in hockey.