Before becoming the youngest general manager in NHL history, 27-year-old John Chayka of the Arizona Coyotes was working to break new ground in hockey through video analysis and statistics.
"It's about always looking for a better way, and always continuing to strive and improve and innovate to look for any competitive advantage," Chayka said.
Chayka started on his path by co-founding Stathletes, a hockey analytics company, in 2010. Stathletes' goal is to analyze video to create new statistics that better help measure the ability and value of players.
Stathletes and Chayka slowly infiltrated the NHL, each growing in stature at the same rate with teams gaining interest.
Video: Chatting with John Chayka
Chayka, a former Junior A player whose career was cut short because of a back injury, earned his degree from the Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario two years ago. Last summer, at 25 years old, he was hired to be the assistant GM to Don Maloney in Arizona.
Stathletes, started by Chayka and fellow Ivey School classmate Neil Lane, has grown to employ more than 50 people and generate more than $1 million in annual revenue, according to The Globe and Mail.
Lane is Stathletes' CEO.
One year after getting his first NHL job, Chayka started living his dream as the general manager of an NHL team when the Coyotes hired him to replace Maloney on May 5.
"It's a lot of work, so in some cases it wouldn't be everyone's dream job because I don't think everybody wants to make the sacrifices," Chayka said. "There are a lot of tough decisions to be made, that's what it comes down to. They're big decisions, they have impact and they involve a lot of humans, so it's not easy to make those decisions, but to have success you have to be able to make them. That's the difficult part of it, but at the same time there is no better feeling than winning, so that's the main goal."
Video: John Chayka talks on being new Coyotes GM
To reach that goal, Chayka is putting the methodology that got him to the League and into the drivers' seat in Arizona to the test. He's trying to marry video analysis and new wave statistics into roster-building to create a winning team and culture in the desert.
Chayka talked about what he's done so far since being hired as Coyotes GM, what it's been like for him to be the untraditional GM and what he sacrificed to get here during a 20-minute phone conversation with NHL.com.
Here are Five (actually six) Questions with…John Chayka:
Just the other day you signed Luke Schenn. You already signed Alex Goligoski this offseason. Obviously you have Oliver Ekman-Larsson. What is the philosophy behind the defense that you're building in Arizona and where do you think it is now in relation to what it was last season?
"The philosophy is fairly simple. It's when we don't have the puck, recover the puck as quickly as possible. There are all kinds of different forms where you can gain possession of the puck, some of them are physical and some of them are non-physical, so I think you need a blend to have both. Once you get the puck back it's to transition the puck. Defense isn't about defending, it's about getting the puck in the forwards' hands and getting the puck moving into the offensive zone. It's about transitioning. That's the philosophy and that's been the theme behind the moves that we're making, let's get players who can get pucks back and get pucks up to forwards in an efficient and effective manner. We think we've taken strides here. We hope there is an improvement. We believe there will be an improvement. Now it's about continuing to look to tweak it. We also have Anthony DeAngelo on the back end. We traded for him and we think he's a real treat for forwards to play with because he gets them the puck in positions where they can be successful and he can join the rush himself. We're hoping for an impact from him at some point in this season. We're hopeful that the whole group can continue to grow together.
Video: Doan discusses new GM John Chayka, reflects on season
Does all this mean the Coyotes are now built to be a faster and more aggressive this season?
"Watching last year, I thought we were a pretty good defending team, but the problem is we just defended way too much. We've got a lot of good forwards and I think some of their numbers have been stressed by the fact that they were in the defensive zone for too long. It's our job to get players in place to put them in position to be successful. As we spend more time in the offensive zone, we'll deny their defense to transition the puck back into the offensive zone and we're going to see more growth in our forwards play. We want to support them from the back end. We want to make sure we're giving them some autonomy to make plays and be creative knowing it's not always going to end up in the back of the net. I think [Coyotes coach Dave Tippett] is continuing to evolve his coaching styles and methodology, and I give him a lot of credit for being in the League as long as he has and having as much success as he's had always looking for a new methodology to improve. We're going to play a more aggressive and up-tempo style of game."
When you were hired on May 5 there were other executives or former executives who, without even attaching their name on occasion, commenting publicly in different media outlets about how they thought the Coyotes were nuts to hire a 26-year-old, inexperienced GM. How did you take that? When you heard people within the hockey community questioning this hire, what did it do to you?
"I've never been [one] to really care much what other people think. It's a matter of perspective, opinion. I can understand why they would believe that or feel that way. For me and for our organization it was about what is the best thing to move forward? I've said it many times, it would have been very easy to just hire an experienced manager who would come in and try to find an avenue to gain a competitive advantage to get ourselves over the hump here. But we decided that as a group it was time to do something more unconventional, take a bit of risk and do some things different here so we could hopefully put ourselves ahead of others. That's the thought process behind it. We're confident as a group that we have the right blend of experience and skillsets, and people who have won and people who have been successful at all different levels, so together as an entire organization we can be successful. For me, it's not about myself, my age, my experience and my background; it's more about a team. Like a team, it's not just about one player, it's about the group. As a team we feel we can accomplish all we need to and we have all the necessary experience to be successful. That's been our approach."
Video: John Chayka sits to talk about the draft picks
You brought up the word sacrifices earlier. Along the way to getting to where you are now, what have you sacrificed? Are there things that you haven't experienced as a kid and now an adult entering his late 20s yet that you might have already experienced had it not been for your pursuit of this dream?
"Yeah. Yeah. I guess having leisurely travel would probably be No. 1. I haven't gone on any vacations for as long as I can remember. I go on work trips now, but you really don't get to see anything or do anything other than watch hockey games. You sacrifice an awful lot of social time when I'm sitting at home cutting video for hours on end. That was my youth, but like I said, nothing is better than winning so hopefully it leads to something special. That's what the goal is here."
You did spend hours cutting video, which turned into Stathletes. That's not something you do unless you love it. What do you love about it?
"My initial passion was to help players understand how to improve and get better, supporting them and working with them to develop their own games. That's the most enjoyable part, seeing people who care so much and want to be the best and want to improve their games get better at those aspects. The game is a real interesting one because of the fact that the difference between winning and losing, being good and being great, is very fine. There are very small things and details that you can do and adjust to ascend to those levels. For me, it's just continually learning and researching and trying to understand what it is that the best players and the best teams do to get to that level and then trying to replicate that yourself. That's the part that I enjoy, the continual learning, the continual drive to try to learn and get better. That's been the fun part for me."
BONUS SIXTH QUESTION: The banner term is analytics to describe the new wave of statistics, video analysis, information that is being brought into the NHL. Everything I've heard from people who study analytics is the NHL is still very much in the infancy stages of incorporating it League-wide, very much on the ground floor. Do you agree with that? Do you think it's still very much in the infancy stages, or has it stepped up a level?
"I think it's all relative. Is it in the infancy stage? Maybe, comparative to the more established sports. That's a matter of perspective, but probably fair. Is it in the infancy stage compared to where it was five years ago? It's definitely not. As we continue to evolve or understand the game and learn more you realize there is more and more to learn. Just because the information continues to evolve and become more complex doesn't mean you go back to the infancy stage. It's a natural evolution of how change occurs. For me, I've been part of it since essentially day one and I see huge growth and more coming. It's been pretty fun to be a part of."