Arizona Coyotes GM John Chayka watched as goalie Antti Raanta stopped pucks on the ice, which was a rare sight this season: a key acquisition in the offseason, Raanta has played about 90 minutes through nine games because of injury.
Ever rarer in those nine games? A Coyotes victory.
Arizona is 0-8-1, at the very bottom of the NHL standings. This is despite a handful of high-profile moves from Chayka in the offseason — getting Raanta and center Derek Stepan from the New York Rangers, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson from the Chicago Blackhawks and snagging head coach Rick Tocchet from the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins’ staff — that augmented a young core that includes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and forwards Max Domi, Christian Dvorak and top rookie Clayton Keller.
Under Chayka, the 28-year-old wunderkind whose journey from OHL player to stats guru to NHL front office has blazed several trails, the Coyotes are 30-50-11 through Wednesday night.
“We’re in a rut as an organization — not these [nine] games, but for five or six years,” he said.
So how does this team get out of the rut, and is this young executive worried that another lost season would mean the loss of his job? I spoke with Chayka about that on Thursday at Madison Square Garden, ahead of the Coyotes and the Rangers facing off that night.
ESPN.com: So what’s the silver lining here during an 0-8-1 start? Tell us it’ll all be OK.
John Chayka: Hopefully, I don’t have to. We’re following the same process we always have, and it’s one that a lot of people recognize is going the right way. I guess the silver lining is that our first line, which is one of the top ones in the league this year, has two guys on entry-level deals in Clayton Keller and Max Domi. Christian Dvorak is coming on as our second-line center. We’re going to get Jakob Chychrun back on defense, and we think he’s a future All-Star. You’re trying to build up pieces that are going to be game-changers. That’s how you win. It’s not through mediocre talent or aged-out veterans. We’ve got a few [game-changers], and we have to wait for them to evolve.
ESPN.com: Does this start sting more because of the acquisitions you made in the summer, and the perception that you took a leap forward?
JC: This thing wasn’t broken overnight and it’s not going to be fixed overnight. We’ve made a lot of good moves, development-wise and externally and organically. I look at what we’ve done — limiting chances, creating more chances, spending over a minute and a half with the puck in the offensive zone more than we have last year. We’ve made some strides. The results aren’t there. You can’t win in this league without .900 goaltending and we haven’t gotten that. It’s easy for me to sit here and say, ‘Let’s not let it snowball,’ but then the puck is in your net and it does. We need to have our starting goalie in net before we can make an evaluation. If we continue to struggle after that, then we look at where we’re going.
ESPN.com: Is your phone ringing off the hook with other GMs trying to take advantage of this start?
JC: I’m not looking to make any big splashes [through trades]. I have discussions, teams ask me what I’m looking for. It’s a funny answer during a winless start, but we’re not really looking for anything other than just some maturity and development of our players.
ESPN.com: That said, do you get calls from rival GMs about Oliver Ekman-Larsson basically every 20 minutes?
JC: [Laughs] No, he’s a foundational piece. One of our leaders, been an All-Star, the one guy that we have that’s an established star. We’re trying to get people to join him in that ilk.
ESPN.com: You have a new coach in Rick Tocchet, and after your loss at the Vegas Golden Knights’ home opener, he questioned the fitness level of several players. How did you feel about those comments as a GM?
JC: That’s what we need. I hired Rick Tocchet because he’s as passionate a winner as I’ve come across. We need people that are strong-willed and strong-minded, and he’s one of those guys. I support him in everything he does. He’s done a great job. Even if that’s odd to say for a winless team.
ESPN.com: As good as Rick is, how much of this start is a leadership void in the dressing room and on the ice? Shane Doan, a longtime captain, wasn’t re-signed and is now retired. The team is currently without a captain.
JC: It’s a transition of leadership. You know, Shane Doan wasn’t going to play until he’s 60.
ESPN.com: Was he aware of that?
JC: [Laughs] That’s a good question … for him. Look, Shane did a phenomenal job for a long time but we had to transition our leadership. That’s what gets missed from what happened over the summer. It’s not a lack of respect of lack of recognition for what we did. But at some point we need people who are in the primes of their careers to step up and be leaders. Right now, it’s awkward. It takes some time. But we had to go through it. It’s not like we’re devoid of leadership.
Now we have a player like Hjarmalsson, who’s as good a pro as I’ve seen. When he walks in the room, guys take notice. And again, Clayton has a chance to win a Calder, Max is developing. And a guy like [Ekman-Larsson] is a leader, but he needs to step up and become “the leader.”
ESPN.com: You’re 28. You’ve been called the NHL’s Mark Zuckerberg due to your age and your analytics background and your rise through the managerial ranks in a non-traditional way. Do you carry that weight with you, knowing that people are counting on you to be a trailblazer and open doors for others? That you might let them down, or worse yet close those doors, if you fail?
JC: There’s a lot of people that have a lot of high goals in life, and I hope I can create some motivation for them. I don’t know if I lack self-reflection, but I can honestly say that I get up in the morning and all I’m thinking about is building a competitive team to win in the desert. It’s such a large challenge that nothing else matters to me. Any kind of personal stuff, whether it’s a personal life or anything like that, is totally secondary to my primary goals.
Former Arizona Coyotes captain Shane Doan is joining the NHL’s hockey operations department.
Halloween is right around the corner, so it’s only appropriate that the Vegas Golden Knights are terrifying the rest of the league with their early results. So who’s leading their howling success? We check in on them and the other 30 teams.
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The Arizona Coyotes were supposed to be much better than this. But a winless start through nine games has people scratching their heads as to what exactly is going on in the desert these days.
ESPN.com: You’ve had to park your social life as Coyotes GM?
JC: I’ve had to park my social life for most of my life.
ESPN.com: You’re two years into your tenure. The team is still, as you said, in a rut, and you were a nontraditional pick for GM. Do you ever worry about your job?
JC: No. Never. My target is the same: We want to build a sustainable Stanley Cup champion. If that takes two years or three or four, that’s how long it’s going to take. I’m not going to change that target to some short-term variation.
ESPN.com: Do the players know that, though? Do they have the same long view or is that dressing room a mortuary during a winless start?
JC: I want to win. I don’t go to bed thinking, Well, we didn’t win, but that’s OK. The players want to win. They know every game is sacred. They have a sense of pride and understanding of what’s going on, but I also think they enjoy it. There are times in these games where we’re dominating possession and scoring chances. It’s just about doing it consistently. Our group’s developed some resiliency during this.