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Hockey Coyotes young GM’s first test: should he try to get Matthews from Toronto?

The NHL had its Theo Epstein moment Thursday, when the Arizona Coyotes promoted 26-year-old Jeff Chayka to the job of general manager, only a year after he was hired as an assistant to Don Maloney, who was let go last month.

Chayka becomes by far the youngest GM in NHL history. Previously that had been Gord Stellick, who was hired when he was 30. Stellick ran the Toronto Maple Leafs between 1987 and 1989 in the crazy disjointed Harold Ballard era when, if you talked about making personnel decisions because of advanced stats, you'd probably have been laughed out of the building.

But a lot has changed since Stellick's time. Salary caps now govern spending. Analytics help teams evaluate personnel beyond the old eyeball test. The Coyotes believe Chayka's combination of smarts and familiarity with analytics make him the right choice. They also ensured he will have an experienced voice in hockey operations by giving coach Dave Tippett more responsibilities for personnel.

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It's a fascinating model, a little like the Colorado Avalanche's, where coach Patrick Roy also has an important say in roster moves. Tippett, in an interview, noted how having a coach's input is invaluable, on the grounds that no one is closer to the players or what happens on the ice than the coach, a critical point.

Most want to paint Chayka strictly as an advanced stats guy. If that's all he were, then the experiment is probably doomed to fail. But the model the Coyotes outline is collaborative and if it works the way they imagine it will, well, more power to them.

Duplicating Epstein's success would be the ideal outcome from a Coyotes' perspective. Hired originally to run the Boston Red Sox at the age of 28, Epstein oversaw a World Series championship within two years. He eventually left to run to the Chicago Cubs, currently one of the most successful teams in Major League Baseball.

After 14 years in the league, Epstein is still just 42.

But Epstein or Stellick or anyone else who got the job of their dreams when they were so short of experience can tell you: The learning curve is steep; the challenges great.

Let's start with an immediate and obvious hypothetical as it pertains to Arizona, a club that finished 29th out of 30 in attendance this season, according to ESPN.

The Coyotes own the seventh pick in the 2016 NHL entry draft; their soon-to-be best pals, the Toronto Maple Leafs, will select first after having won the draft lottery a week ago. The presumed first overall pick is going to be Auston Matthews, a player from Scottsdale, Ariz., who is projected as a No. 1 centre, something the Coyotes could really use.

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But more than that, Matthews is also a local boy. For a team still trying to find its footing in the market, with a desperate and ongoing need to sell tickets, Matthews would be the ideal face of the franchise.

So what might the Coyotes be prepared to offer the Leafs to land that pick and get Matthews? It would probably start with their exceptional defenceman, Oliver Ekman-Larsson. A package might also have to include Max Domi, their excellent rookie, or Dylan Strome, who went third overall last year, just ahead of the Leafs' prospect Mitch Marner.

Matthews's presence at the top of this year's draft is a once-in-a-generation fluke. The Coyotes cannot expect it to occur again.

So what happens when marketing goals collide with sophisticated analytics?

Or to ask the question another way, do the Coyotes do whatever it takes to get Matthews – even if it means overpaying in a deal – just because his presence in their lineup could go a long way to filling those empty seats in the Gila River Arena?

It's a tricky question and it's made even trickier because any negotiation for Matthews will be conducted with Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello, who won his first Stanley Cup in June of 1995, or 15 days after Chayka's sixth birthday. If there is a conversation – and realistically, there has to be at least a conversation – maybe this is a time the Leafs entrust assistant GM Kyle Dubas with the preliminaries, on the grounds that he and Chayka speak the same language.

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Deep down, NHL GMs are all piranhas. Collectively, they'll be testing Chayka to see if they can take advantage of his inexperience.

The smart young ones know and understand that. But historically, a lot of inexperienced GMs become practically paralyzed in their first years on the job, so fearful of doing the wrong thing that they do nothing at all, unless they can swing a deal that's an obvious home run.

So it's going to be a balancing act in Arizona. For anyone who is new in a position requiring some on-the-job training, a little confidence can go a long way. Too much can be disastrous. Sometimes the most important thing to know and acknowledge is that you don't – and can't – know it all. Not right away.

Follow me on Twitter: @eduhatschek

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