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The Era of Chayka: Examining the Roster Turnover

John Chayka was the youngest man to ever be named a GM, and in the year and a half since his hiring, he’s already overhauled the Arizona Coyotes.

2016 NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7 Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

In the world of sports, change is entirely normal. It signals new stages in a team’s development, austerity measures put in place by a team with an internal cap or even a team in turmoil over changes done in the not so distant past.

On an assumingly sunny Phoenix afternoon, Jamie McGinn was a part of some change as he was sent to Florida in exchange for right-handed defenseman Jason Demers. The move was yet another change that shows the Coyotes aren’t the same team as when John Chayka took over on April 10th of 2016.

In fact, they’ve changed so much that an NBC account said something nice about the Coyotes for the first time in, well, a long time.

But the Demers trade and response to it are symptoms of a greater body of work. John Chayka took what some [me] would call a mess of old washups and slacking talents left by Don Maloney and turned it into a decent team.

To summarize, it took John Chayka 527 days to turn Arizona from a perennial garbage fire into an actually not bad team. To quote The Athletic Toronto writer Scott Wheeler—

Chayka’s work has been well documented, particularly with the shakeups this offseason. But often times it’s hard to visualize change over a single offseason, let alone change over a year and a half. How have the Coyotes improved? Where have they improved? And, perhaps most importantly, what is the positional turnover between the time Chayka took over the team and the 2017-18 Preseason?

Importing Talent:

Players Acquired via Trades

This category has raised the most eyebrows. John Chayka utilized assets and the occasional pick to bring in 7 projected roster players, all of which are not interim-type players but long-term players acquired with success and playoffs in mind. Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Jason Demers are not guys you bring it to fill the void until prospect develop.

They’re pieces acquired to supplement pieces already influencing the team being iced.

Additionally, Chayka acquired two decent-to-good prospects in Brandon Hickey and Merrick Madsen. Both are on NCAA teams, and therefore not under contract, but the team owns their rights and therefore the leverage needed in any future trades until they conclude their college careers.

But Chayka has also flipped a fair amount of pieces, as denoted by the grayed and blacked out names. He utilized cap space to eat medically incapable or KHL-bound players while spending very little to get the pieces that are no longer in the organization. He spent little on low-risk players, and it cost him very little when they departed, demonstrating poise beyond his years in GM experience.

Building Outside In:

Players Acquired via Free Agency

Free Agency has always been a tenuous season for Arizona. Since 2012, the team has been in the dumps and staffed to the bare minimum, both on and off the ice. In the Don Maloney Era, very few players could be convinced to come to the desert.

Enter John Chayka {stage left followed by a Coyote.}

Now Chayka didn’t go sign the world and every free agent to massive, foolish contracts, but smartly signed players who would fill short-term voids and selected a few players to be pieces for the future. He played Free Agency like a smart, veteran GM.

Many decried the terms and length of Alex Goligoski’s contract as too much, but in reality, Goligoski is stability for a team that just didn’t have the depth to stop the puck. And while Chayka did technically trade for Goligoski, he had to sell him like a free agent and did so successfully.

Chayka subsequently brought in legitimate pieces in Luke Schenn and Hunter Miska while getting other players such as Radim Vrbata and Justin Peters as stopgap measures to plug holes left by his predecessor.

Traditional Development:

The Hoarding of Picks and Prospects

The cornerstone hallmark of a team in a full-blown rebuild is acquiring massive amounts of prospects and picks in the hope that some of them pan out in a few years. The Coyotes have acquired 12 picks since Chayka took over, all of which fell in the top 5 rounds.

Through trades in conjunction with cap consumption (the Datsyuk trade), traditional player for picks flips (Hanzal to Minnesota) or trading back to absorb assets (Philadelphia and Edmonton at the draft), Chayka was able to draft current roster player Jacob Chychrun and top prospects Pierre-Olivier Joseph, Mackenzie Entwhistle, and Filip Westerlund.

Overall, when considering the picks moved out, the Coyotes didn’t gain too many picks in the two drafts Chayka has run. Chayka didn’t have many picks to work within 2016, but he had a full slate to maneuver within 2017 and he showed skill in how he handled them.

Tying Up Loose Ends:

Players Who Chayka Let Loose in Free Agency

When John Chayka took over, the roster left a lot to be desired. Yes, there were some good prospects down the pipe, most namely Christian Dvorak and Dylan Strome, but the roster playing in NHL games left a lot to be desired.

Chayka let names like Alex Tanguay, Nick Grossmann, Sergei Plotnikov, Viktor Tikhonov, Kyle Chipchura and Zybnek Michalek all walk since his tenure started. Of that group, all are either retired or leading generally mediocre KHL careers at the moment. All of those names, considering production and talent, are pieces indicative of a team in full rebuild. Those are warm bodies to fill roster spots.

But if you recall the names brought in and the skills they bring, the replacements seem to be in a new direction altogether, and it isn’t a restart of a rebuild, but rather a ramping up from rebuild to being competitive again.

Now during Chayka’s tenure, Shane Doan was released and this remains a sore spot for many fans. Doan, who had a great 2015-16 season, faltered in the 16-17 campaign leaving Chayka to have to make the hard choice and cut the longtime face of Arizona hockey go. However, it created room for players to grow and the team to move forward, while finally nudging Doan towards hanging the skates up and potentially moving into an off-ice role with the team.

Again, that shift from spinning tires in a rebuild to a legitimate dark horse for a wildcard slot took only 527 days.

One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Treasure:

Players Traded Away

John Chayka has made himself known in the world of NHL GM’s for taking advantage of other GM’s misfortunes. He’s raided Chicago and Detroit for their salary cap issues, Florida multiple times for their internal cap issues and New York for some real NHL talents.

But in every move, there have to be pieces going back. Some trades moved players that weren’t going anywhere, as was the case in Hache, Samuelsson, Fornier and even to a degree Dauphin, who was never going to have the skill to get high enough on the depth chart to be an impact player.

Other players were moved to teams looking to have cheaper alternatives than other options on the trade or free agent markets. Connor Murphy was an apparently acceptable downgrade for Chicago, Anthony DeAngelo was good enough for New York to part with a player like Derek Stepan. Martin Hanzal, Michael Stone, and Mike Smith drew a gaggle of picks for Chayka to toy with, all of which coming from teams hoping to take a step up.

In comparison to the players brought in, the players shipped out in trading were of far lesser quality and impact on the organization.

In essence, Chayka turned Hanzal in Stepan, Smith in Raanta, Murphy, and Stone into Hjalmarsson and Demers (although none of these changes were made in a direct manner). That is pure creativity and genius.

Giving Some To Make Some:

Expansion Drafting and Traded Picks

In the same vein as the players moved out during the Chayka era, sometimes you have to part with picks to make more picks and that’s what Chayka did.

He traded down twice during the 2017 draft, turning 2 picks into 5, which he turned and drafted players closely reflecting organizational needs.

He gave the organization more shots at filling long-term holes by moving back a few spaces in around and nabbing some later picks. If the NHL has taught us anything about the Big 4 major North American sports leagues, it’s that later round and undrafted players always have a shot at breaking into the NHL or at least developing into a passable trade asset. In so many words, drafting in the NHL is a crapshoot and the more shots you take, the better chances you have of getting something decent.

In terms of protecting the organization from the Expansion Draft, it wasn’t difficult yet Chayka maneuvered the team into a position to succeed no matter the outcome. Chayka exposed low-level players he expected to release, including the drafted player Teemu Pulkinnen, while exposing roster players who were becoming expendable such as Brad Richardson and Jamie McGinn.

The True Body of John Chayka’s Work:

Net Change

Measuring the effectiveness of a GM is difficult to do and often decidedly subjective. Is a good GM one who gets their team a Stanley Cup? Is a good GM one who can get their team back into the playoffs? Is a good GM one who literally just had to pick a franchise player at first overall and keep him happy [*cough Edmonton and Toronto cough*]?

It changes by the market, and even my media outlet. So how does one measure the effectiveness of John Chayka, whose only been a GM for a year and a half in a non-traditional market yet completely renovated his team?

Well, one way to measure is the change in tone of tweets from other analysts and fans. Early tweets were suggestive that he’s just another stats boy making gains in NHL front offices. Others focused on his age. Some were just curious at what would change.

But now we’ve arrived at respect.

People across the league genuinely believe he is fleecing GM’s across the league and transforming a team. And he is. But tweets aren’t a solid measurement of success.

One concrete way of evaluating what he’s done is looking that the net change of the roster and organizational makeup.

While many general prospects have departed after being left unsigned and others have come into the organization via drafting, the list of pieces who were brought into the organization as a result of Chayka’s direct asset management decisions compared to people removed from the organization by Chayka is, perhaps, the most eyebrow-raising aspect of his tenure thus far.

In summation, Chayka inherited an organization featuring a group of forwards that included Shane Doan, Kyle Chipchura, Steve Downie, Alex Tanguay, Viktor Tikhonov, Sergei Plotnikov, Jiri Sekac, Martin Hanzal and Laurent Dauphin. If he were to leave right now, he would have acquired the team Lawson Crouse, Mario Kempe, Derek Stepan, Nick Cousins, and by extension of not moving the 2016 7th Overall pick, Clayton Keller.

Chayka flipped Zybnek Michalek, Nicklas Grossman, Jarred Tinordi, Connor Murphy and Michael Stone for Niklas Hjalmarsson, Alex Goligoski, Jakob Chychrun, Jason Demers, Luke Schenn and Adam Clendening. That’s three 7th defensemen and two top-6 D for a top pair defensemen, two top-4 defensemen, top-6 defensemen, 7th defensemen and a top young player in Chychrun.

In net, Mike Smith in exchange for Antti Raanta and two top-tier goaltending prospects.

Considering both the quality of players and outlook of the team, the net change created by Chayka can objectively be called positively impactful. John Chayka, over the course of 527 days, took this team into the future and expedited a rebuild from at least 3 more years in the eyes of many analysts into a dark horse for a wild-card spot in the Western Conference.

From when he started to now, he’s recomposed 48% of the projected Opening Night roster and completely renegotiated the composition of the organization. Any GM can change nearly half of their roster in about 18 months, but how many GM’s can remake 48% of the team while upgrading nearly every position without inexplicably sacrificing the future of the organization?

I would contend that no GM in the league has done more for their team since the end of the 2015-16 season than John Chayka.