The Arizona Coyotes entered the Edmonton hub for the NHL's restarted season over the weekend. Part of life in the bubble is seeing what it can keep out. Like, for example, outside distractions that could knock a team off course.
"Yeah that's been said. A bunch of times. Trust me," head coach Rick Tocchet said.
But on the eve of the postseason, the Coyotes were faced with a major distraction that sent ripples through the NHL bubble: John Chayka, their general manager and president of hockey operations, resigned on July 24, as was announced in an emphatically snarky news release issued by the team.
"The Club is disappointed in his actions and his timing, as the Coyotes prepare to enter the NHL's hub city of Edmonton, where the team will begin postseason play for the first time since 2012. Chayka has chosen to quit on a strong and competitive team, a dedicated staff, and the Arizona Coyotes fans, the greatest fans in the NHL," said the Coyotes, who named assistant GM Steve Sullivan as interim GM.
Chayka released a statement to AZ Coyotes Insider and writer Craig Morgan later that day:
"The past four years have been the most enjoyable of my life. In Arizona, I became a husband and a father, while working as hard as possible to make the Coyotes a Stanley Cup contender. I love our players, coaches, staff and fans and I very much wish I could be with the team in Edmonton. Sadly, the situation created by ownership made that an impossibility. That's all I intend to say on this matter for now. A fuller, more detailed explanation may be necessary in the near future. Until then, I wish the Coyotes good luck in Edmonton, and thank every member of Our Pack for the support shown to Kathryn, our daughter and myself over the years. Also, I want to congratulate Steve Sullivan as he steps into a new role. We've worked side-by-side for years. He is a great person and a terrific hockey mind."
What compelled a GM to leave his team before the playoffs? And what caused that team to publicly besmirch him on the way out?
A quick history lesson:
Chayka joined the Coyotes in 2015 as a 25-year-old assistant general manager after co-founding Stathletes, a hockey analytics organization that worked with Canadian junior teams. He was brought on board by then-GM Don Maloney. He would replace Maloney a year later, becoming the youngest general manager in major league sports history, and eventually add president of hockey operations to his job title.
In August 2019, the Coyotes were purchased by billionaire Alex Meruelo, who expressed his admiration for Chayka. The feeling was mutual. "It's very clear Alex is different, he's very unique," Chayka told the AP. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with him. He's an elite business mind and I've been extremely impressed with not only his business acumen, but how he goes about building businesses. For us here, it allows us to take this to the next level."
The next level was a financial one. The Coyotes had long been a team hovering around the salary-cap floor. Chayka had perfected the art of using that flexibility to take on other teams' dead cap space in trades for draft picks -- such as he did in dealing for the contract of Chris Pronger and the contract of Marian Hossa, two injured future Hall of Famers who never actually played in Arizona.
But Meruelo changed the math for Chayka, allowing him to spend the Coyotes to the salary-cap ceiling this season. Arizona and the Toronto Maple Leafs are currently the only two NHL teams with zero space under the $81.5 million cap. Last season, the Coyotes finished with over $7 million in cap space under a $79.5 million cap. Chayka traded for star winger Phil Kessel last summer, who has an $8 million cap hit and earned $7 million in salary this season. The 32-year-old is signed through 2022.
Chayka's own financial situation also changed. Meruelo handed him a contract extension in November 2019 that carried three more years after this season. "I am fully confident that John is the right person to lead us moving forward and help us bring the Stanley Cup to Arizona," Meruelo said.
"I am very grateful to the Meruelo family for believing in our vision for the Coyotes franchise," Chayka said in a statement.
While Chayka was envisioning the future for the Coyotes, he caught the eye of someone else. About a month ago, an NHL owner called Meruelo asking for permission to speak with Chayka. Meruelo denied the request. He didn't extend his GM's contract just to have him interviewing someplace else a few months later.
According to a source, Chayka came to Meruelo seeking permission to speak with the owner under the premise that it wasn't a job interview; making the argument that previous Coyotes owners would have let him have the conversation, as it was intended to "build relationships with owners in hockey" and "get market knowledge."
Spoiler warning: It ended up being a job interview.
After it appeared things remained status quo for Chayka and the Coyotes, he told Meruelo that he wanted to leave for an opportunity with that team: a job that would be a step up from NHL GM, into a role overseeing aspects of other sports teams in the owner's portfolio.
According to an NHL source, that team was the New Jersey Devils, whose owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer own the Philadelphia 76ers, Crystal Palace FC, multiple minor league teams, an esports team and, potentially in the future, the New York Mets.
The Devils had an interim GM, Tom Fitzgerald, until July 9, when they elevated him to the job permanently. The ownership group also fit Chayka's professional philosophy, embracing analytics in each of their organizations. That includes the Devils, who have noted analytics analysts Matt Cane and Tyler Dellow working in that department.
A Devils source would not confirm or deny they were the team. Multiple messages left for Chayka were unreturned.
After Chayka requested his release to leave for the new job, sources said Meruelo "felt lied to" and "betrayed" after the previous conversation, the contract extension and the financial commitment to Chayka's plan for the Coyotes, which included a December 2019 blockbuster trade for Devils winger Taylor Hall.
After denying Chayka's release, the relationship between the GM and ownership became strained and acrimonious. The team offered to revisit the situation with Chayka after the conclusion of the season, according to sources. Chayka reportedly didn't trust that delay, and felt that denying him an earlier exit was "unreasonable." The team would reply that he was under contract.
Sources say things boiled over between Chayka and the Coyotes when it became clear that the job he wanted to take was rooted in hockey operations, making it much more of a lateral move than previously indicated.
"This is where things fell apart. The Coyotes felt it was a pattern of misrepresentation," a source said. "He tried to finesse it. There are some people that just think they're the smartest people in the room, and every now and then it comes back to bite them."
The Coyotes continued to say they would reconsider Chayka's request, but now with strings attached. The team believed that Chayka's contract would prohibit him from taking a similar hockey operations job, should he resign. Thus, they would grant his release only if he agreed not to take one, and agreed to part ways only after the season.
As this was playing out, Chayka's role with the team was changing. He set up a meeting with Coyotes ownership for Hall, to familiarize the player with new Arizona CEO Xavier Gutierrez. However, Chayka did not attend that dinner, which included Hall, Meruelo, his son Alex Jr., and Gutierrez. There wasn't any discussion of a new contract at the dinner. It was just an informal meeting between Hall and ownership. But the absence of Chayka from that meeting raised red flags around the league.
Despite all of this, the Coyotes were trying to have Chayka remain a part of the team as late as last week. According to a source with knowledge of the call, Gutierrez expressed the team's commitment to its general manager and what was expected of him, and then asked Chayka to reciprocate that commitment clearly, in a "yes or no" fashion. He refused to do so.
As the Coyotes were preparing for playoff games, the relationship between their GM and owner reached its endgame. A source close to the team said that Chayka took himself out of the COVID-19 testing protocol, thus removing his eligibility to join the team in Edmonton. The source said that the team considered that "a material breach of his contract," although the NHL allowed any team official the leeway to opt out of traveling to the bubble.
Chayka tendered his resignation on Friday, which the Coyotes announced in their memorable statement. The contract dispute between the sides is expected to be adjudicated by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman at a later date.
In a story of many uncertainties, there's a significant question mark skating with the Coyotes in the playoffs: Taylor Hall.
Sportsnet reported that the initial offer to Hall was five years with an average annual value of $7.25 million, but there were contracts discussed with a higher value and at a different term between Chayka and Hall's camp. The offer presented to Hall by the Coyotes after the season is likely to be different from what's been given to him previously. "That was John's work product," a source said. "The end result could be different."
The plan remains to formally engage with the star player after the season, so as not to be a distraction for Hall during the postseason. As if having the general manager who acquired him quit before the playoffs, and having his team instantly vilify him, wasn't distraction enough.