John Chayka’s divorce from the Arizona Coyotes was so public, it even shocked fellow employees of the franchise. Why exactly the erstwhile GM quit his post on the eve of the Return to Play tournament is a question that will be parsed out in the coming weeks with a stream of conflicting messages, depending on which camp the sources are in.
What we do know is that Chayka blames ownership for making his position untenable (as he related to beat writer Craig Morgan) and the Coyotes themselves are pulling no punches, releasing a statement that included the following cutting critique:
“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 post-season 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.”
Was Chayka entertaining a job with another franchise, causing a rift with new owner Alex Meruelo? That’s been put out there by a couple trustworthy reporters, including Elliotte Friedman, who also noted that Meruelo would like commissioner Gary Bettman to mediate what, at its heart, is now a contractual issue between Chayka and his former employer.
What we do know is that Steve Sullivan has been named interim GM of the Coyotes after serving as assistant GM for three seasons. And that allows us to look into the present and future for Arizona fans.
Sullivan, who was an undersized left winger in an era that did not welcome such talents, has quickly seen his star rise in his post-playing days. He began his tenure in Arizona as a development coach in 2014-15 and garnered more responsibility when he took over the assistant GM role three years later. That post also came with the dual role of GM to the AHL Tucson Roadrunners. So what do his new peers think of him?
“Sully is a passionate and smart hockey man who now has a runway to really understand how to do this job,” one NHL GM told me. “He has a great chance and advantage to keep this job by allowing the people around him to help him achieve his goals.”
Another insider described Sullivan as the type of exec who really takes in the information before making a decision; he’s not a knee-jerk kind of guy. What Sullivan essentially has now is a head start on any other candidates to earn the Coyotes GM job on a permanent basis.
And there are candidates, to be sure. There are strong rumbling out there that the NHL would like to see Peter Chiarelli at the helm, for example – and hey, I’m just the messenger here. Chiarelli’s exit from Edmonton was unceremonious to say the least, but he does have a wealth of experience to draw from. There’s also former Los Angeles Kings assistant GM Mike Futa to consider, a man with a great reputation who has been in the running for other GM jobs and reportedly even turned one down when that team tried to lowball him on salary. If you’re looking for a local angle, former Coyotes goaltender Sean Burke would be another option. Currently an exec with Hockey Canada (and goalie consultant for the Montreal Canadiens), Burke was an assistant GM in Arizona a few years ago – the same time Chayka was coming up, ironically.
But for now, Sullivan has an excellent opportunity to show that the job should be his on a permanent basis. The most pressing matter will be the status of pending unrestricted free agent Taylor Hall, who came to the Coyotes in a blockbuster trade with New Jersey that will cost Arizona its first-round draft choice in either 2020 or 2021, depending on whether or not the Coyotes are slated to pick in the top three this year (which is possible if Arizona loses to Nashville in the qualifying round and ‘wins’ the Phase 2 lottery for first overall). If Hall re-signs with Arizona and the Coyotes win a playoff round, a 2021 third-rounder becomes a first-rounder (if one of those conditions hits, it’s a second-rounder).
Most likely, Hall will at least test free agency waters before he decides what to do. And the Coyotes have to consider if signing the 28-year-old to a big-money, long-term contract (which no doubt some team will offer the recent Hart Trophy winner) is best for their franchise goals.
The two sides have already talked (another point of contention in the Chayka saga), but now Sullivan will get the chance to weigh in and figure out the pros and cons.
For now, Sullivan is the GM and it’s his job to prove he can be the guy full-time. From the sounds of it, he’s ready – but he must know that a lot of other hockey minds will be coveting the position, too.