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John Chayka building Coyotes by the numbers

NHL's youngest GM relying on statistical data, trying to make Arizona winner

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

Arizona Coyotes general manager John Chayka was often asked earlier this season if he was nervous about rookie center Christian Dvorak, an elite scorer in the Ontario Hockey League who wasn't scoring or impacting games in the NHL.

Chayka's answer was always the same. He wasn't nervous. Dvorak will score. He'll figure it out.

"The pot was on the stove and the water was starting to bubble but it wasn't boiling yet," Chayka said.

It's boiling now. Dvorak, who scored 230 points with London of the OHL from 2014-16, has 11 points (seven goals, four assists) in 16 games since Feb. 2. He had 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in his first 45 games this season and was twice demoted to the American Hockey League.

So how did Chayka know what to eventually expect from Dvorak this season? Why was Chayka, the youngest GM in the history of the NHL at 27 years old, so confident that Dvorak wasn't just someone who benefitted from riding shotgun with Toronto Maple Leafs rookie Mitchell Marner in London?

It's simple.

The statistical data Chayka and his staff collected over time told him what he needed to know about Dvorak, just as it does about all NHL players, how they are trending and what is realistic to eventually expect from them.

"A few mouse clicks and I can bring up a lot of information on every player," Chayka said. "Everyone is smart and everyone has good people in place. I think the efficiency of information is a characteristic of good organizations and successful ones."

Chayka, in his first season as Arizona's GM, is working to build a successful organization in the desert, and his methodology is based in statistical analysis: acquiring data, combing through it, discovering trends and using all of the information as a competitive advantage.

It's too soon to gauge whether Chayka's methodology will lead to Arizona becoming a Stanley Cup contender, but the trends show progress. The Coyotes are 11-14-2 since the start of January. They were 11-21-5 from October through December.

Arizona's small turnaround didn't prevent Chayka from being a seller at the 2017 NHL Trade Deadline. He traded veteran forwards Martin Hanzal and Ryan White and a fourth-round draft pick in the 2017 NHL Draft to the Minnesota Wild for a first-round pick this year, a second-round pick next year, a conditional fourth-round pick in 2019 and forward Grayson Downing.

The extra draft picks give Chayka more flexibility to make trades or acquire more young assets and also give players like Dvorak more ice time for the rest of this season.

"That's where we are at as an organization, a development model, so how do we make our players better?" Chayka said. "We're not good enough right now. They're good players, good young players, but they've got to get better. How do we bridge that gap? Any time we see a player trending the wrong way or conversely if we see a player trending the right way, doing good things, that's when the coaching staff puts into action the [statistical] information. I think part of their job is to sell players on what they need to do to have success. This helps them clarify that and quantify it."

That's what happened with Dvorak. He was showing signs of becoming an impactful player because his rates of puck touches per shift, per minute and per 60 minutes were rising. Puck touches is the key stat Chayka uses for Dvorak because the center is expected to be involved in the play all over the ice.

"As the season wore on he was becoming more and more involved," Chayka said. "As that continued to evolve his ability to create offense, create scoring chances for both himself and his teammates, getting second and third opportunities in the offensive zone, have continued to stand out. From where he was to where he is now is a significant improvement in that area."

Similarly, albeit in a negative way, the underlying numbers told Chayka enough about forward Anthony Duclair to send him to Tucson of the AHL on Jan. 19.

Duclair, who scored 20 goals in 81 games last season, has three goals in 42 games this season. The lack of production wasn't as alarming as the lack of scoring chances, the one statistical measure that fits Duclair's game best, Chayka said.

"He was extremely reliant on other players to generate, which has its benefits when you're playing with elite players, especially elite centermen, but when you're not what are you bringing to the table on a consistent basis?" Chayka said. "If he's not acquiring pucks and hanging out around the slot looking for passes, that's not ideal."

The coaches used the data on Duclair collected by Chayka and his team of analysts when they explained to him what he needed to work on and why. They had proof in numbers.

Chayka said he noticed Duclair starting to figure it out in Tucson after a few games. He had eight points (one goal, seven assists) and 22 shots on goal in a span of 11 games from Jan. 21-Feb. 17.

Duclair was recalled Wednesday to fill one of the forward roster spots available after Hanzal and White were traded.

"It was an adjustment period early on," Chayka said. "He was still waiting for others to generate, but I think he's figuring it out. He's gotten back to what makes him successful, and that's creating chances. He has to convert on those chances. That's part of being a goal-scorer, but I've seen a lot of progress in a short amount of time from him."

Chayka shoots down the notion that he's trying to be a trailblazer in a tradition-based, eyeball-test industry that is slowly changing toward a statistical approach, but there's no denying that he's unique.

There's his age, which immediately makes him different. (When he was promoted May 5 to replace Don Maloney, he became the youngest GM in major league sports history at 26, a few months younger than Stan Kasten, who was hired by the NBA's Atlanta Hawks at 27 in 1979.) Chayka also was a founding partner in a leading hockey analytics company and admits to having an obsession for using statistics to advance growth and improvement for players.

Chayka officially turned his passion for statistical analysis into a career in 2009 when he co-founded Stathletes Inc., a leading a hockey performance data and analytics company with a client base of teams in the NHL, Canadian Hockey League and NCAA. (Stathletes doesn't publicize its list of clients, but the Coyotes are on it.) He was hired as the Coyotes assistant general manager in charge of analytics prior to the 2015-16 season.

Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, who said he has been dabbling in stats based on scoring chances for several years, was on board with Chayka's promotion, with Tippett becoming executive vice president of hockey operations.

"As a coach you get dialed into it day-to-day, like 'How are we going to win tonight?' But there is a balance," Tippett said. "With John, you sit down and talk with him, all our conversations are very logical with where we're at, where we're going and what we have to try to do. He's easy to understand, it's just coming from a different perspective."

Chayka will still at times spend up to eight hours tucked away in his office with his laptop breaking down a game to find every small detail that could be part of the bigger picture for player development.

However, because his job as GM pulls him in many different directions, he's more reliant now on his team of analysts, who supply him with a report after each game. It can be 25 pages or longer. Chayka calls it the Coyotes' reporting catalogue.

Among the statistical categories being tracked are breakouts and zone entries. They keep numbers on time in zone, sustained pressure situations, and puck retrievals through forechecking.

Chayka said the key is in the highly detailed information, which only shows up through deep analysis of every play in every game.

"Every time there's an event," Chayka said. "A player touches the puck, what's he doing with the puck, where's he going with it, what were his options to make plays with that puck, what are the probabilities if he makes play X versus play Y, and which would have the higher likely outcome if he makes that play? You just track it all. You need a lot of games to see the trends. A lot of those trends lead to nothing, but the ones that do lead to actual information become the competitive advantages.

"The ability to have a database that collects all of this information so you can test your intuition against it and have objective, unbiased information, that's the trick."

Chayka and Tippett have daily discussions about the details in the data. Like he did with Duclair, Chayka leaves it in the coach's hands to relay the information to the players in a manner that makes sense and doesn't lead to a feeling that they're being singled out, which could create friction.

The data is supposed to ensure there are no such strained feelings, Chayka said.

"Instead of our coaching staff going to a defenseman and saying, 'Here's five video clips where I think you need to play tighter,'" Chayka said, "they can say, 'Here's a collection of 30 games where you've had to deny the zone 200 times, here is your average on your denial rate, here are your teammates' averages, here's a bucket of other players who play similar roles and how you compare to them, and now let's go to the video and see some areas where you can improve. The coaching staff takes over and says, 'Here's the problem, let's find a solution.' If over a large enough sample size you're continually struggling in that area, it's a red flag."

The Coyotes players understand the value in what they're receiving.

"Before it was all just based on a coach's feel and whether they felt like a certain thing wasn't good in someone's game or could have been improved on," defenseman Connor Murphy said. "Now [the data] helps their certainty with stuff. Now if we don't feel like we're doing well, there is actually proof there that the results aren't good enough with what we're trying to do so they can try to change things. It's nice just to have an extra tool of seeing how to get improvements from a development standpoint and to see if you can put whatever you can together to bring wins.

"Now there is proof in numbers."

The proof shows the obvious: that the Coyotes have a lot to change. They're 29th in the NHL, in line for another lottery pick in the 2017 draft.

None of that surprises Chayka because the underlying numbers show a team in the development phase, which is exactly where the Coyotes should be with the players they have. Chayka is convinced they'll be a contender within two years because, as with Dvorak, the numbers are bubbling and it's only a matter of time until they boil.

"There are a lot of emotions in this business and there's also a lot of potential for fear that people have," Chayka said. "To have objective data that suggests this is trending the right way or these things are happening as you'd hope gives you a lot of conviction to stay the course."

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