Fair warning: Long read ahead. If you hate my long, rambling posts just abort. If you are on a mobile device not great for reading or just short on time, maybe return and read it later.
Eric Tulsky and his role with the Carolina Hurricanes
Just to make sure everyone starts on the same page, Eric Tulsky works for the Carolina Hurricanes with the unassuming title of “Hockey Analyst.” Die-hard fans know who he is, but because of his somewhat secretive role that sits behind the scenes and out of the spotlight, I figure many fans may not even know who he is. (And that is perfectly okay. Not everyone should take their Canes hockey hobby to crazy levels. :-))
At a basic level, Eric Tulsky is responsible for statistical and analytical work for the team. Exactly what he does is a secret, but clues here and there at least provide a rough idea. Prior to joining the Hurricanes initially part-time just before the start of the 2014-15 season, Tulsky was one of the people at the forefront of the NHL analytics movement that started in the public domain. On August 20, 2015, after one season in a part-time role, Tulsky was hired into his current position on a full-time basis. His work before joining Hurricanes included analyzing in-game play (focus on offensive zone entries and their contribution to offense) and player development analytics (looking at success rates for drafting goalies and also analyzing peak production ages for players) among other things. Those projects offer a glimpse into what Tulsky thought was important and also demonstrated the diversity of what he analyzed. But now three years after he was pulled into the Hurricanes organization and went quiet, what exactly he is working on is wild, speculative guesswork. One can be pretty certain that it has changed significantly. Very little is said of specific projects with the Hurricanes, but snip its of comments from Francis, Peters and Tulsky himself suggest that his work still covers a wide range seemingly with an ‘If statistical analysis can help, I am on it’ kind of mentality. Ben Pope from the News & Observer wrote a great article about Tulsky and his work on October 6, 2016 that offers additional insight into Tulsky’s role.
Analytics in today’s NHL and Tulsky’s potential to be a difference-maker
As much as he mostly hides in the background and works on secretive projects, Tulsky’s role in the Hurricanes’ success should not be underestimated.
Statistical and analytical work in the NHL is still very early in its maturation. There have already been multiple shake ups in the analytics ranks at the NHL level with Montreal and Edmonton hiring and then firing pretty quickly. Some teams are clearly struggling to figure out if/where/how analytics fits into their organization and how to leverage it to gain an advantage or at least not be at a disadvantage. On the other side of the coin, some teams are certainly figuring it out faster than others and gaining a measurable advantage. Just like with the NHL analytics movement in general, the teams that are winning will not often make headlines. Rather than bragging about their wins, they will work even harder to keep what they have learned quiet and away from other teams who are still grasping for straws. In the process, the leading teams will do everything that they can to extend the time that they have an advantage as far into the future as possible.
The genesis of hockey analytics and its early development certainly featured significant cross-pollination when the vast majority of the work occurred in the public domain. But when you fast forward to today, enough of the early leaders and many of the brightest minds have been out of that domain and have been publicly quiet for multiple years. It is personal speculation, but I feel confident in believing that what individual teams are doing right now varies widely. Only after analysts begin to move across teams and share ideas will the process to normalize across the league and as long as the winners keep their leaders, the sharing of best practices will be incredibly slow. That affords the leaders a window during which the disparity from team to team offers significant potential for some teams to gain sizable advantages while others are at a disadvantage.
Put more succinctly, I think the next 3-7 years are high time for ‘hockey analysts’ to make a much greater impact than most will ever know (because of that secrecy about what exactly they are doing again). Eric Tulsky is the primary principal in that game for the Carolina Hurricanes organization.
Reasons to believe that the Hurricanes will be one of the winners in the analytics-based ‘moneypuck’ game
Even with the challenges and murkiness of assessing the impact of a hockey analyst like Tulsky and mostly a lack of information about what he is even doing, I feel strongly that the Hurricanes have much better than a fair chance to be one of the teams that not only keeps pace but actually gains an advantage.
Here is why. First, I think that by acting fairly early, the Hurricanes added one of the leaders in the field, most significantly in terms of being able to creatively identify potential areas that could make a difference.
Tracking data, managing and farming data bases, running numbers and ultimately gaining insight is the end point of a process. There is significant professional skill involved in accumulating, managing and analyzing data. And once you get to the point where you know what data to collect and how to analyze it, that skill is necessary and valuable. But in the NHL realm which I think is still fairly early in the process of figuring out what even to analyze and collect, the skill set that matters most is the ability to creatively figure out what from among dozens of projects has the greatest potential to make a difference. The game right now is not about taking a massive amount of data and and then crunching the numbers by formula or known process to arrive at an answer. Rather, the game right now is about identifying areas of research with the most favorable mix of time investment required, probability of yielding useful information and the magnitude of the potential impact of that information.
More directly, I think right now it is much more about figuring out what even to collect and analyze and much less about doing the calculations and analysis. Importantly, the skill set for these two related tasks is quite different. The latter skill can be learned and is very much something that could be hired for even without the need for creativity or hockey insight. But the former skill set, “figuring out what even to collect and analyze” in a role that is still incredibly new requires creativity and thought leadership to prioritize what even to work on out of a multitude of possibilities that could theoretically help improve an NHL team. Broad areas could include any/all of drafting players, rating players for potential acquisition via trade or free agency, evaluating the current roster and player combinations, assessing opponents and many more.
As an early leader in the public hockey analytics domain and a demonstrated leader in terms of setting directions for what even to analyze that was followed (and still is) by many others, I like the Carolina Hurricanes odds that Eric Tulsky is at the forefront of the NHL in terms of identifying what even to analyze.
Second and maybe even more important than the raw smarts and abilities of Eric Tulsky and anyone else that the Hurricanes hire is the people part of the equation. When Eric Tulsky and the first wave of ‘hockey analysts’ were being hired to join NHL teams, it was uncharted territory. What exactly they would even do was loosely defined at best. How exactly this information would be incorporated into coaching, scouting and other hockey operations was something to be figured out. And how and to what degree different types of analytical insight could benefit a team was yet to be determined. Prior to NHL teams making the jump, there was often (not always) an antagonistic battle between some hockey traditionalists who saw no value in analytics and (some) members of the analytics community who could be antagonistic toward ‘old school’ ideals.
In a professional environment, one would hope that there was more of an effort to work together, but many of us know from our personal work experience that open-mindedness, the ability to work with other people and other soft skills are not distributed evenly across the human population. Especially in an environment of uncertainty with goal of developing a working model that includes a mix of skills from two different worlds, I actually think that the people skills are as important as the raw smarts being brought into the organization. And that is actually one of the key areas where I think the Hurricanes will win and vault up toward the top of the NHL in terms of leveraging analytics.
We are not privy to the details of what Eric Tulsky is working on. Nor do we have detailed information about the working relationship between Ron Francis, Bill Peters and Eric Tulsky. But we have anecdotal evidence to suggest that the relationships are good ones. First, Francis made the move to hire Tulsky after one year in a part-time, seemingly more consulting-type role. Francis could probably have forged farther down the road part-time if things were bumpy in the early going. Instead, he move quickly to make Tulsky a more permanent part of the team. Second, small comments in interviews seem to suggest the trio interact regularly. Most notable was Peters’ comment on an interview last summer in which he recited Eric Tulsky’s phone extension number which he had memorized. Importantly, we also have a pretty good read on Ron Francis’ ego and diplomacy. It is partly opinion on my part, but I think most would agree that Francis is highly unlikely to be a dogmatic old school type who was unwilling to consider new ideas. Finally, in setting a rebuilding plan three years and holding steadfastly to it with patience and perseverance, Francis shown a propensity to set a plan in place and patiently see its course. In inserting Tulsky’s analytics into the traditional processes, there was very likely some trial and error and even failures figuring out how to adjust the process and get positive results. Francis’ patient personality should offer time to absorb small failures on a path to success even if it takes some time.
Netting it out
When I boil it down, it is two things:
I think the potential for analytics to make a significant difference in building and managing winning NHL hockey teams over the next 3-7 years is incredibly high and underestimated because of its secrecy and behind the scenes nature.
I think the Carolina Hurricanes have a unique combination of professional skill and equally importantly people skill/personalities that give the team a strong chance to to be among the NHL leaders in this area (maybe without anyone really ever knowing) .
What say you Canes fans?
Is Eric Tulsky’s role and the black box that it lives in just too unknown for anything more than unverifiable Hurricanes blog material to help fill the offseason? Or do you think my thoughts could have merit even if the details are sparse?
Recognizing that analytics is just part of the equation, how significant of a difference do you think it can make for teams that are better at it?
It is just wild speculation, but do you agree with my opinion that what individual teams are doing varies wildly and that there is likely a significant disconnect at this point between what is the latest in the public domain and what some teams are doing?