29-year-old Coyotes GM John Chayka’s bold moves starting to pay off

The youngest general manager in the four major pro sports leagues has also been the NHL's busiest.

In 30 months on the job, 29-year-old John Chayka has made 21 trades — some major, some minor — each done with the idea of building the Arizona Coyotes into a sustainable winner. 

Chayka doesn’t claim success because he hasn’t made the playoffs. But as the 7-6-0 Coyotes – who had a five-game winning streak snapped Monday night – sit today with the league’s third-lowest goals-against average (2.23), it’s clear Chayka is having an impact.

“He is mature beyond his years,” Coyotes president Ahron Cohen told USA TODAY Sports. “His thoughtfulness in how he evaluates and how he makes decisions is second to none.”

Kyle Dubas has received attention as the young, vibrant first-year general manager of the Maple Leafs. But he's just over three and half years older than Chayka, who is in his third NHL season.

“I know I would not have been ready to be a general manager when I was 29,” said Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill, noting that he had a chance to be a GM in his 40s and didn’t take it because he felt he had more to learn under Ken Holland, Scotty Bowman and Jim Devellano in Detroit.

Nashville Predators GM David Poile, 68, had worked as an NHL team executive for 17 years and had been a league GM for almost seven years before Chayka was born.

In his short time in charge, Chayka has traded for goalies Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper; forwards Derek Stepan, Alex Galchenyuk, Richard Panik and Vinnie Hinostroza; and defensemen Niklas Hjalmarsson, Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers and Jordan Oesterle.

“We’ve made a lot of moves, and now they are accumulating to mean something,” Chayka said.

He also drafted forward Clayton Keller and extended defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson on an eight-year, $66 million contract when many in the media were predicting Ekman-Larsson would leave as a free agent after this season.

"It was rewarding (that Ekman-Larsson stayed),” Chayka said. “He could have signed with 30 other teams and gotten as much money, if not more. He had leverage. …The fact he was willing to sign here long-term was a big vote of confidence for our ownership, myself, the coaching staff. It validated a lot of things we are trying to do.”

What the Coyotes are trying to do is ignite a fan base by qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

Chayka’s managerial boldness has started to pay off. The Coyotes were 17-9-3 after Feb. 6 last season. They were the tied for the fifth-best record in that stretch, owning a better mark than the Golden Knights, who played in the Stanley Cup Final.

“There's a real buzz in town about our team,” Cohen said. “The past couple of days my phone and email are blowing up from people saying they are proud of us or that they think we are doing a good job. People see the vision, see the progress.”

Cohen said the Coyotes show increased ticket sales, corporate sponsorship, TV ratings, merchandise sales and food and beverage sales. Cohen calls it a “mosaic of positivism.”

Chayka’s work is at the heart of the optimism. “Coming into the league at such a young age, the one way (Chayka) could establish himself was be aggressive,” Stepan said.

Stepan, a center, is one year younger than Chayka and he appreciates how easy it is to communicate with him.

“I don’t know if it is an age thing – it’s just the way (Chayka) is,” Stepan said. “He’s an open book. He wants to change the way GMs interact with players. … He wants to be very honest with everyone. If you want to talk to him about something, you feel like you can.”

Chayka prefers to laud coach Rick Tocchet for the work he has done in making this team more competitive. 

“The defense is the heartbeat of our team,” Chayka said.

Arizona's goalies have a collective save percentage of .926, and they can thank a veteran defensive group for stabilizing the blue line.

“If you look at our roster, we built from the back end,” Stepan said. “A lot of the older guys, the guys with the most games played, are on the back end. The system that Tocchet has put in allows us to have success on the defensive side of the puck.”

Even though Chayka deals with rival general managers who were in the game before he was born, he has never felt out of place. General managers Holland (Red Wings), Doug Wilson (Sharks) and Lou Lamoriello (Islanders), in particular, have been helpful sharing experiences.

“I am a lifelong learner,” Chayka said. “They aren’t giving away state secrets, but I ask questions and I enjoy hearing their perspectives.”

Nill said Chayka deserves credit for being a quick learner. “He’s a smart man, and open-minded,” Nill said.

Chayka said he will never reach the point when he feels like he has mastered the job. He hasn’t had a moment when he felt like he had figured out the process.

“If we make the playoffs,” Chayka said, “Maybe that will be the time.”

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