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Coyotes GM John Chayka’s track record is a series of savvy moves

Arizona Coyotes general manager John Chayka is interviewed by The Doug and Wolf Show on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station on Feb. 12, 2018. (Matt Layman/Arizona Sports)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — When John Chayka became the Coyotes general manager 23 months ago, he professed a commitment to sustainable success. That project is still in process.

Arizona finished 29th in the NHL standings after an active offseason that saw it notably add goalie Antti Raanta, center Derek Stepan and defensemen Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jason Demers while saying goodbye to captain Shane Doan, forward Radim Vrbata, center Martin Hanzal (at the 2016 trade deadline), defenseman Connor Murphy, goalie Mike Smith and coach Dave Tippett.

While owner Andrew Barroway’s proclamation that the team was “built to win now” was understandable exuberance in the wake of his buyout of the team’s other owners, Chayka never promised a playoff berth or instant success. Quite the contrary. He offered words of caution.

“Everyone talks about expectations and that’s fine,” he said at training camp. “Our position is that every game is sacred, every season is sacred and if you’re not coming to make the playoffs you’re in the wrong sport, the wrong league.

“Having said that, we have a lot of new faces, a lot of new coaches, a lot of new players. That’s going to be a process and there will be some things that come up, some adversity. How we deal with those things will probably determine our ultimate fate.”

For the first three months of the season the Coyotes encountered a perfect storm of obstacles. The rebuilt roster struggled to adapt to first-year coach Rick Tocchet’s up-tempo style, going 1-11-1 in October, and 9-27-5 in 2017.

The Coyotes played 21 of their first 33 games on the road, 16 of those in the Central or Eastern time zones, with a travel total of 22,333 miles by Dec. 10 that ranked as the most in league history over that time span. The constant travel limited the amount of valuable practice time the team, especially its younger players, needed to absorb Tocchet’s teachings.

Compounding matters was a trio of key injuries.

Raanta missed 16 games in the first two months of the season with lower-body injuries and a concussion. His backups, Louis Domingue (0-6, 4.33 GAA, .856 save percentage), Adin Hill (1-3, 3.49 GAA, .891 save percentage) and Scott Wedgewood (5-9-4, 3.45 GAA, .893 save percentage) played poorly.

Defenseman Jakob Chychrun missed the first two months of the season (29 games) while recovering from offseason knee surgery, and Hjalmarsson missed 26 games over the first three months due to upper-body injuries.

Put those pieces together and it’s easy to understand the team’s struggles, if not the depth of those struggles.

“There’s a cost to change and I think you saw that early on,” Chayka said. “It was one of those things where maybe it was a step back to take two steps forward but now we’ve invested the time and invested the energy and the resources into getting our group up to speed.

“We’ve taken some steps. I’m not satisfied, but I think we’re on the brink of being a great team. The hardest part is getting there but I think we’ve put in place some foundational pieces and we’ve made some complimentary moves that have helped complement the group. I think we’re one or two special moves away from being a real top team now.”

To assess Chayka’s two-year performance, we have assembled most of his trades and free-agent signings of players not already on the roster for analysis in reverse chronology.

THE MOVES

Feb. 21, 2018

Acquired: Goalie Darcy Kuemper from Los Angeles
Traded: Forward Tobias Rieder and goalie Scott Wedgewood

Analysis: Wedgewood was immediately assigned to the Kings’ AHL affiliate in Ontario. Rieder had four goals and six points in 20 regular-season games. He averaged 12:50 of ice time with a Corsi For percentage of 48.4. Kuemper went 2-6-2 with a 3.22 GAA, an .899 save percentage and a goals save above average of minus-4.18. Chayka believes the Coyotes have settled their backup situation, but Kuemper’s numbers have to improve for that to be so. None of the three players has a large enough sample size to draw meaningful conclusions.

Edge: TBD

Jan. 10, 2018

Acquired: Forwards Richard Panik and Laurent Dauphin from Chicago
Traded: Forward Anthony Duclair and defenseman Adam Clendening

Analysis: Clendening was assigned to Rockford of the AHL. Duclair had two goals and eight points in 23 games. He was sidelined for the season on March 10 with a lower-body injury. Dauphin played two games after his recall before a lower-body injury sidelined him for the season on March 10. Panik had eight goals and 19 points in 35 games for the Coyotes.

Edge: Arizona, right now. If Duclair does not realize his potential, it will remain that way.

Dec. 19, 2017

Acquired: Forward Josh Archibald, goalie Sean Maguire and a 2019 sixth-round pick from Pittsburgh
Traded: Goalie Michael Leighton and a 2019 fourth-round pick

Analysis: Leighton is in the AHL; Maguire is in the ECHL. Archibald gave the Coyotes a useful depth forward that understood Tocchet’s system.

Edge: Arizona

Nov. 14, 2017

Acquired: Forward Tye McGinn and goalie Michael Leighton from Tampa Bay
Traded: Goalie Louis Domingue

Analysis: McGinn was assigned to Tucson of the AHL. Leighton was packaged to help acquire forward Josh Archibald in a trade with Pittsburgh. Domingue went 7-3-1 with a 2.89 goals against average and a .914 save percentage in 12 games for Tampa Bay with a goals saved above average of 0.7.

Edge: Slight edge to Tampa Bay.

Sept. 17, 2017

Acquired: Defenseman Jason Demers from Florida
Traded: Forward Jamie McGinn

Analysis: McGinn had 13 goals and 28 points in 75 games in a third-line role for Florida. He averaged 13:26 of ice time and had a Corsi For percentage of 46.4. Demers had six goals and 20 points in 69 games for Arizona. He averaged 21:08 of ice time (third on the team) with a Corsi For percentage of 51.5.

Edge: Arizona

June 23, 2017

Acquired: Goalie Antti Raanta and forward Derek Stepan from the New York Rangers
Traded: Defenseman Anthony DeAngelo and the No. 7 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft (Lias Andersson)

Analysis: Despite the early-season injury issues, Raanta finished second in the NHL in save percentage (.930), second in goals against average (1.84) and third in goals saved above average of 7.05. Stepan’s 56 points were one off a career-high in 19:16 of average ice time. He had a Corsi For percentage of 49.7. DeAngelo had eight assists and a Corsi For percentage of 50.2 in 32 games. He spent half the season in the AHL. Andersson had one goal and two points in a seven-game trial.

Edge: Arizona

June 23, 2017

Acquired: Defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson from Chicago
Traded: Center Laurent Dauphin and defenseman Connor Murphy

Analysis: Hjalmarsson played just 48 games this season (one goal, nine assists) due to injuries. He missed just 12 games combined the past five seasons but concerns about mileage on his body will persist. That said, until a lower-body injury sidelined him for the season on March 22, he played like the elite defensive force that helped Chicago win three Stanley Cups, logging 20:42 of average ice time. Murphy had two goals, 14 points and an impressive 53.5 Corsi For percentage but just 16:22 of average ice time, hinting at coach Joel Quenneville’s lack of confidence in him. Dauphin came back to the Coyotes in a subsequent trade.

Edge: Slight edge to Arizona

June 17, 2017

Acquired: Defenseman Brandon Hickey, rights to goalie Chad Johnson and a 2018 third-round pick from Calgary
Traded: Goalie Mike Smith

Analysis: Johnson signed with Buffalo and it looks as if Hickey will not sign with Arizona so the Coyotes only got a third-round pick out of this deal. That said, this trade was about getting Smith’s final two years off the books with some retained salary ($1.417 million per year) so the Coyotes could reallocate funds. Smith posted a .916 save percentage and 2.65 goals against average with a goals saved above average of 6.83. He played well until a late-season injury. When he returned, he played poorly and Calgary missed the playoffs. Given Raanta’s performance on a $1 million salary, this is at least a wash with the money saved.

Edge: Even

June 16, 2017

Acquired: Forward Nick Cousins and rights to goalie Merrick Madsen (now signed)
Traded: Forward Brendan Warren and a 2018 fifth-round pick

Analysis: The Coyotes locked up Madsen in March to add another prospect to their deep goaltending pool, and Cousins gave them some skill and speed for their fourth line, scoring 12 goals (19 points). Warren played his third season at the University of Michigan.

Edge: Coyotes

Feb. 27, 2017

Acquired: Forward Teemu Pulkkinen from Minnesota
Traded: Future considerations.

Analysis: The Coyotes got Vegas to claim Pulkkinen in the expansion draft. Nobody saw that coming, including Chayka. Pulkkinen is in the AHL.

Edge: Arizona

Feb. 26, 2017

Acquired: A 2017 first-round draft pick (Pierre-Olivier Joseph), a 2018 second-round draft choice, a 2019 conditional fourth-round draft choice and forward Grayson Downing from Minnesota
Traded: Forwards Martin Hanzal, Ryan White and a 2017 fourth-round draft choice

Analysis: Wild GM Chuck Fletcher made this trade to get Minnesota over the playoff hump. Minnesota didn’t make it out of the first round. Hanzal signed the following season with Dallas. White is in the AHL.

Edge: Arizona

Feb. 20, 2017

Acquired: A 2017 third-round pick (traded for St. Louis’ 2017 third-round pick, defenseman Cameron Crotty; a Vancouver’s 2017 fifth-round pick, defenseman Michael Karow) and a 2018 fifth-round pick from Calgary
Traded: Defenseman Michael Stone

Analysis: Karow played last season at Boston College while Crotty played at BU. Stone had three goals and 10 points in 16:45 of average ice time with a Corsi For percentage of 49.5.

Edge: TBD

Aug. 25, 2016

Acquired: The contract of Dave Bolland and forward Lawson Crouse from Florida
Traded: A 2017 third-round pick (defenseman Max Gildon) and a 2018 second-round pick

Analysis: The Coyotes only paid 20 percent of Bolland’s salary after he went on long-term injured reserve so this trade was about acquiring Crouse, who is still in the AHL.

Edge: TBD

Aug. 16, 2016

Signed forward Radim Vrbata to a one-year contract

Analysis: Vrbata gave the Coyotes 20 goals and 55 points for $2 million.

Verdict: Win for Coyotes

July 1, 2016

Signed forward Jamie McGinn to a three-year, $10 million contract

Analysis: McGinn managed just nine goals and 17 points in one season in Arizona, but Chayka flipped him for Demers. It was a bad signing that was quickly corrected and turned into a positive.

Verdict: Thanks to the Demers trade, a win for the Coyotes.

June 25, 2016

Acquired: Defenseman Anthony DeAngelo from the New York Rangers
Traded: A 2016 second-round pick (defenseman Libor Hajek).

Analysis: Hajek is in the WHL. DeAngelo was flipped to help acquire Raanta and Stepan.

Edge: Coyotes

June 24, 2016

Acquired: The contract of Pavel Datsyuk and a 2016 first-round pick (defenseman Jakob Chychrun) from Detroit
Traded: The contract of forward Joe Vitale, a 2016 first-round pick (Dennis Cholowski) and a 2016 second-round pick (defenseman Filip Hronek).

Analysis: Once again, the Coyotes used cap space (they didn’t pay Datsyuk any money) to acquire Chychrun, who looks like he could become a top-four fixture if a late-season injury doesn’t hamper his development.

Edge: Coyotes

June 24, 2016

Drafted: Forward Clayton Keller with the seventh overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft

Analysis: Keller finished second among NHL rookies with 65 points (23 goals, 42 assists). That is the 14th highest point total since the team moved to Arizona in 1996.

Verdict: A win for the Coyotes

June 17, 2016

Acquired: Negotiating rights to free-agent defenseman Alex Goligoski from Dallas
Traded: A 2016 fifth-round pick (goalie Colton Point)

Analysis: The Coyotes signed Goligoski to a five-year, $27.375 million deal on June 23. Goligoski underperformed in his first season but he was more consistent this season. He had 12 goals and 35 points in 23:17 of average ice time. His Corsi For percentage of 46.1 is too low for his pay grade but 55.1 percent of his zone starts came in the defensive end. Point had a spectacular season at Colgate, tying for the national lead with a .944 save percentage and finishing second in goals against average (1.74). His future is still unclear. The Coyotes may have overpaid Goligoski slightly in their desperation to land a puck-moving defenseman while Tippett still had major influence on hockey operations decisions.

Verdict: Still a win for the Coyotes.

When you look at the ledger, Chayka clearly comes out on the positive end with his moves. It’s all the more notable given the team’s tight budget, which has forced Chayka to get creative in instances, even using cap space as an asset.

If his moves don’t produce results within the next couple seasons, he will face greater scrutiny, but the Coyotes GM is comfortable with that professional reality.

“My goal isn’t to be a GM for as long as possible,” he said. “My goal is to win a Stanley Cup. I’m not going to be taking the safe route. I’m not going to be just trying to hang onto things. I’m trying to build a great team.

“We’re going to take some risks here. We’re going to do some things that we think we have to do in order to win. They might not always be popular and they might not always be obvious, but we’re going to approach it that way.”

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