John Chayka has been so busy in his first month as Arizona Coyotes general manager that even returning an email to Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein has been pushed to the back burner.
The 27-year-old has spent the first month of his term as the youngest GM in pro sports history assembling an off-ice team, preparing for the draft and free agency, tailoring the Coyotes to his vision and simply learning the job of GM.
"Yeah, it’s been fun," Chayka said in an interview.
Though he spent one season as Arizona’s assistant GM, everything about the new gig is somewhat foreign to Chayka, who as a teenager started Stathletes, a hockey analytics company.
The first task, he said, was establishing a "starting point" for the organization. Chayka said it’s imperative that the Coyotes be realistic about where they are, where they need to go and what that outlook may be in one-year, three-year and five-year increments.
"And I think that was the key for me is coming from a start-up background, looking at how you build a business plan, you look at operations, you look at marketing, you look at finance, and it’s the same thing (here)," Chayka said.
That means assessing the coaching, management and medical staffs, as well as the roster and player development team and then making projections to not only formulate a plan for the future, but determine whether those projections have been successful down the line.
The Coyotes are still looking to add an experienced assistant GM to complement Chayka, but they’ve added pieces to their development team, including former NHL player Mike van Ryn as well as full-time skills and skating coaches.
Chayka wants to optimize the Coyotes development process, ensuring that the club converts on as many picks as possible. That conversion rate, Chayka says, "in our minds is going to be what separates us from the pack, from the other teams."
Arizona boasts a rich pool of young talent, including Dylan Strome, the third overall pick from the 2015 draft, and Christian Dvorak, the co-captain of the OHL’s London Knights.
The Coyotes hired Chayka because they believed his smarts, new-age approach and use of data would override any inexperience he might have.
An example of this is the Coyotes’ use of a sports psychologist at the draft combine earlier this month. Chayka and his group determined that "mental approach" was one key variable in the success of the club’s current players and wanted to better understand how prospects learn, how they approach development and whether they have a clear understanding of their strengths and weaknesses.
Data will be prominent under Chayka, be it at next week’s draft, where the club holds the seventh overall selection or next month in free agency. For Chayka and other data-driven thinkers, numbers, or added insight from a sports psychologist, don’t so much make decisions, but inform them. It’s about gaining as much information as possible to minimize mistakes.
"I think it helps you get a more thorough look and I think our duty as managers to our ownership group is to be as thorough as possible so analytics is a way of increasing thoroughness," Chayka said. "The numbers, for me, sometimes they might be right, sometimes they might be wrong, but they’re honest. They don’t change their view, they tell you what you think and I guess if they were a person that would be how I feel about them."
Chayka has reached out to peers, agents and others in the sport for counsel as well as those in the business world and big data business. He’s also formed a relationship with Alex Anthopoulos, the one-time youthful hire of the Toronto Blue Jays, a now-experienced voice he can lean on.
The Jordan Station, Ont., native says he’ll approach the draft and free agency much as he did last year, when he provided analytical analysis to then-GM Don Maloney, only this time he’ll be the one calling the shots.
Chayka comes with some experience as a lead decision-maker from his time at Stathletes, which sought to make analytics in hockey more accessible to those within the game. He says he understands how important it is to cultivate a solid culture and knows what the weight of big decisions feels like.
Nothing about the role has surprised him so far, though he’s absorbing and learning more each day.
"And I think if you asked Lou Lamoriello if he learns every day I would expect his answer to be probably yes and I think that’s what makes the top people, the elite minds, they continue to learn every day and that’s my goal is just to learn every day," said Chayka.
Learning, he added, doesn’t come at the expense of productivity and indeed, there’s much to do at what is probably the busiest time for an NHL manager.
That email to Epstein, once the youngest GM in Major League Baseball history, will have to wait.