Genesis external to the management suite
Some time ago the advanced stats movement in the NHL began as a grass roots effort. It did not spring out of an NHL GM project. Rather, it grew from a smart and creative group of passionate hobbyists doing it in their free time.
Most significant in transitioning this knowledge into the NHL management ranks is that it requires assimilation into an organization and work process from outside.
The NHL management team
The process for making decisions for an NHL team is not something that has undergone significant change over time. Teams have expanded some over the years, but the basics of a head coach and small defined set of assistants making on-ice decisions and a GM and small team of assistants making personnel and off-ice decisions has been pretty similar for decades.
The upshot is that the NHL decision-making structure has been reasonably fixed for a long time and very minimally subject to external shocks and changes. As such, NHL management has minimal experience considering and integrating changes to its team.
The people and difference in approach
At a very basic level, the advanced stats/analytics community and historical NHL management come from different walks of life. Historically, NHL management comes from within the game. Many coaches and staff are former players. Those who are not former players have largely worked their way up through familiar coaching ranks to reach the NHL.
As something that sprung up outside the NHL community. The trailblazers who were mostly passionate hobbyists came from a variety of other professions many with an academic leaning.
Challenge of simultaneously making a significant change to both team and process
When NHL teams made the move as a group to add analytics to their management teams, I think people underestimated how challenging of a transition this was. It can be difficult for a functioning team to suddenly be told it must work differently. It can also be difficult to add new team members. Doing both together is even harder and just takes time.
Importance of patience and team building
Just resetting in terms of process and figuring how the team even works together is a crucial first step. It is also something that takes time and is not something that cannot just be figured out or dictated on day one. Rather, this new order and process requires a group of diverse people to put a common goal first, put aside differences and figure out how to work together and leverage different skill sets to be great together.
Significant in this process is leadership that appreciates each individual member of the team and pushes everyone to work together to achieve a common goal. Also significant is recognizing that figuring all of this out takes time and having patience. Small wins should always be sought, but the bigger ones will take time.
The incredible importance of the right people and emotional IQ
Hiring/having the smartest people is important, but because of the team and process challenges detailed above, having existing and new team members with high emotional IQ, controlled egos and ability to work with others will likely prove more important than raw smarts in terms of gaining a competitive advantage from adding analytics and advanced stats to the team.
New team members who arrive appreciating the value of what is already being done have a chance to be expected. New team members who show up smarter than everyone else and having a better way to do everything will not.
Old team members who are open-minded about new ways of doing things will quickly start figuring how new team members can help what they do. Old team members who are convinced that they know everything based on their experience will instead waste time defending their way and building barriers between themselves and new team members.
I like the Hurricanes’ chances to gain an advantage
First, it is important to admit that details of how the Hurricanes team functions are sparse. Francis is called ‘Fort Knox Francis, for good reason, and like all other analytics hires, Eric Tulsky went quiet upon being hired by the Hurricanes.
But a couple key things bode well. First and foremost is that Ron Francis is now a couple years deep into his career as an NHL GM and has demonstrated a steadiness in terms of strategy and people relations that has the patience and team building that is vital. Coach Bill Peters is a self-professed details man who should have a natural appreciation for looking at the game in a different way. And maybe most significantly as the new, arguably smartest guy in the room and person who is upsetting the old apple cart, my impression is that Eric Tulsky has the people skills which are crucial to becoming an accepted new member of the team. It is a bit anecdotal, but I say this from his role as both a leader but equally importantly a community builder in the early days of the hockey analytics community.
We are still in the early days of analytics impact on the NHL game. Teams who do not get that, the need for patience and the incredible importance of the people/team part of it are destined to spin their wheels and mostly fail. I think the Hurricanes are positioned well to be a team that steadily builds a growing advantage over those teams.