Up-Close: John Chayka

Youngest GM in hockey opens up on analytics


John Chayka, the youngest General Manager in the NHL, gets an Arizona Coyotes jersey with his name. Photo: Norm Hall

John Chayka loves the movie Moneyball, because it mirrors real parts of his life, but he is much more a mad scientist than silver screen stud Brad Pitt. The tight-lipped and conservative video guru is the youngest GM in hockey, who inherited a tough situation in Arizona. He opens up about his role in the new wave of hockey analytics and eating the same food everyday.

If you’re a hockey fan and don’t know about Fenwick or Corsi, don’t worry, John Chayka wants to change that.

In fact, the 27-year-old general manager of the Arizona Coyotes – the youngest in the league to hold that post – not only wants to inform you on different hockey analytics, he wants to use them to change the way your favorite team is playing.

The sports analytics movement gained notoriety with the movie Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt who played Billy Beane, the man who revolutionized the use of statistics in baseball. Of course, baseball was first to the game as its volume and speed of play lend to easy analysis. Soccer, football and basketball subsequently joined the party and now hockey finds itself as the latest sport to delve into the craze.

Every shift, shot, pass and goal is now being added to a vast database where it can be dissected. This parsing of data shows trends and helps players and front offices alike gain an edge toward the ultimate goal: the Stanley Cup.

Chayka is at the forefront of this charge, but wasn’t always a front office member. After his playing career was cut short due to a back injury, Chayka worked at a hockey school where he began getting deeply involved in video analysis.

He watched hours and hours of game footage and logged every minute. And with every stroke of the pen, he began to notice patterns and tendencies that could help players and teams improve.

Chayka took his method to his friend Neil Lane, who improved it, and the pair formed Stathletes, a hockey analytics company devoted to producing data for those in the hockey business.

As the company’s notoriety grew within the hockey community, so did Chayka’s profile as an expert. Then, by age 25 he was serving as the assistant general manager of the Arizona Coyotes.

After one year in the position, he was hired as the full-time general manager of the Coyotes after last season, becoming the youngest in NHL history to ascend to that position.

In fact, he’s more than half the age of the average general manager in the NHL, which is 53 years of age.

So what does Chayka think of the analytics movement and where does he see this going? Find out for yourself in this Q & A with the man that’s changing hockey.

When did the analytics light bulb go off in your head?

I think the seeds were sewn when I was playing. Every player looks at the game differently and has different ideas and beliefs about what is most important in the game. Moving forward as I started working with different players and different teams, analytics started to make a lot of sense.

Who is your analytics hero?

I wouldn’t say I have a hero necessarily. Theo Epstein has had a lot of success. As an executive he’s been able to interact with the human element of things while utilizing and leveraging data to optimize his business operations. He’s a guy that’s had a lot of success in a pretty short period of time.

Why do you think hockey is so late to the analytics game?

There are a lot of hypotheses about that. Some people think that baseball, football and basketball are in the college scene, so they lend themselves to a more academic approach. I don’t know if I buy that. I think there are certain elements of the sport – the speed, the physicality and the interaction with the puck and the player and line changes that make it more difficult to analyze and track.

As technology has evolved so has the ability to analyze and quantify the game. Objective data has become easier and easier to come by now. It’s a much more intricate game than the others, but as technology has developed so has the analytics market.

How does analytics bridge the gap between the rich and poor clubs?

It’s about finding value in the market and looking at things in a different manner than everyone else. You need to be more flexible and creative in your analysis than other teams. Everyone is looking for their own competitive advantage and the difference between winning and losing on a given night is miniscule.

It’s about doing a lot of little things right, because little things add up to big things and that’s what analytics is all about. The best way to build a core team is through the draft and from there finding value later in the draft and the free agent market.

How do you see the ice differently from other general managers?

Well, first I’d have to know how they see to tell you [laughs]. For me it’s a sequential game of patterns that repeat themselves over and over again. Based on those patterns, you play the odds to give yourself the best chance of winning. The teams that take advantage of these patterns over the course of time come out on top. It’s about taking a long-term strategic view of the patterns rather than short-term variations that some people might deal with on a day-to-day basis.

What’s your favourite and least favourite stat in hockey?

I don’t necessarily have a favourite. A lot of what I’ve done is proprietary so I can’t share it. But, every stat has a place in the game. They can all be inherently good or inherently bad. Really, it’s about the application of the stats throughout the organization that matters most.

Are you trying to change the way hockey is played?

I’m just kind of focused on our organization right now – trying to get us better every day. There’s not overarching global goal. I’m trying to take care of what we can right now.

Do you like the movie Moneyball?

Yeah of course. It tells the story of how you can utilize data to make better decisions and it’s an entertaining film. There’s a lot of theatrics but I think there’s validity and truth to the story. It brings to life some of the things we deal with on a day-to-day basis.

Where’s the value in the market now?

Value is a constantly moving target. As the market shifts, the game shifts and then the market shifts again. The most undervalued asset is team building. You have to go out and find players that compliment and coexist inside of your already existing player infrastructure. Each trade, every singing, you’re trying to evaluate what this player and his attributes bring to your team. It’s more in understanding the harmony of how everything works together.

Are you as analytical in your personal life as you are in hockey?

I’m certainly more analytical in my personal life. Right now it’s all about the Coyotes – that’s certainly the biggest part of my life. There’s research that says humans only have a certain amount of decision-making power in a given day. I live an extremely regimented life. Everything is a habit and has a rational behind it. I do the same things at the same times and eat the same kind of meals. That way I free up my mind for my work to improve the Coyotes.

Are the nerds taking over hockey?

[Laughs] Well first, the word “nerd” would have to be defined. But from there, I don’t think analytics is just a sport thing right now. If you look at banking, consulting and other industries, people are finding a lot of value in statistical analysis. Sports aren’t immune to business industry. Everyone is implementing objective analyses and processes across the board and there’s a movement toward that in sports. Hockey will always have the human element of speed and physicality, but the analytics part isn’t going away anytime soon.




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