It’s been four years since nanotechnology expert Eric Tulsky quit his day job developing electric vehicle batteries in California and moved his family to North Carolina to launch an entirely different career.
Then-Carolina Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis, now with Seattle’s NHL franchise, had employed Tulsky part-time for a season as a long-distance hockey analytics consultant but wanted to make him a full-time data analyst heading up a department devoted to statistics-crunching. For Tulsky, who’d grown up a Flyers fan in Philadelphia before launching the Outnumbered hockey analytics website, it was a risky move into a field the NHL had only started embracing.
“We anguished about it for a bit because it’s not an easy thing to leave a career and a bunch of training you’ve put into it,’’ said Tulsky, 44, who holds a Bachelor of Arts in chemistry and physics from Harvard and a doctorate in chemistry from UC-Berkeley. “But it seemed like a good opportunity, so we moved out there. And that was four years ago.’’
Tulsky was since promoted last year to Hurricanes vice president of hockey management strategy, owed largely to current Seattle GM Francis having taken his work seriously right away. Where some teams have been accused of marginalizing analytics personnel, Tulsky insists: “From the day I started, they brought me in because they wanted to hear what I had to say.’’
All eyes are now on Francis and what he’ll do analytics-wise with a Seattle franchise launching in October 2021.
NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke said the day Francis was named GM that work with analytics was a major reason, calling him “a visionary who understood that there’s new competitive advantages coming by way of analytics and technology and we wanted somebody — especially in Seattle — who had that skill set.’’
The team already had analytics specialist Alexandra Mandrycky as a director of hockey administration, but Francis has said he’ll work with her “as we build that department out.’’ That could take much of the next year, but will involve adding staffers.
In Carolina, where Francis had fewer financial resources than is expected here, the Hurricanes’ analytics staff was initially limited to Tulsky.
It wasn’t until just before his final 2017-18 season as Hurricanes GM that Francis approved adding Toronto native Kevin Kan — who’d also run a hockey analytics website — as a data engineer. Those working with the Hurricanes say Tulsky and Kan became regulars at meetings with scouts and coaches.
“They didn’t come in trying to tell everybody how to do their jobs,’’ one source said. “But as time went on, you could tell they were being listened to because a lot of their ideas were what we ended up doing.’’
Under new Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon, Kan was promoted this summer to a hockey operations developer role, and Matt Walter was hired as data engineer. A new data scientist position has also been filled by a soon-to-be-announced hiring.
The bolstered staff of four leaves the Hurricanes among the bigger analytics crews in the league — though it’s difficult to determine exactly how many analytics staffers teams employ as they sometimes incorporate them within separate departments.
But Seattle’s team will need at least two such staffers and likely more as the NHL this coming season provides teams with reams of additional game data courtesy of player- and puck-tracking technology.
Mandrycky came to Seattle from the Minnesota Wild, where she’d been a data analyst since 2016 working with lead hockey researcher Andrew Thomas — her former colleague at the War on Ice hockey website.
She was known as a strong programmer who designed systems that made it easier for Wild officials to digest numbers thrown their way, while Thomas was seen as having strengths on the analysis and strategy side. But Minnesota opted not to retain Thomas this past spring and unsuccessfully tried to keep Mandrycky, who joined NHL Seattle just ahead of Wild GM Paul Fenton being fired last week after only one season.
It remains to be seen whether Mandrycky assumes the lead data analysis role here.
Not surprisingly, there’s been speculation Francis will hire Tulsky away from the Hurricanes. That would place Tulsky in the senior role here — he’s one of only two NHL team vice presidents in an analytics position, along with recently hired Tyler Dellow of the New Jersey Devils — though the combo of his and Mandrycky’s skills would leave Seattle superbly stocked.
Tulsky declined to discuss subjects unrelated to his current and past work for the Hurricanes.
There’s also been talk, predating Francis’ arrival, of NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke luring longtime Tampa Bay Lightning director of hockey analytics Michael Peterson with a VP promotion. It was under Leiweke, CEO of the Lightning from 2010 to 2015, that Peterson became one of the game’s most respected specialists in his field.
Just ahead of Leiweke’s final season with the Lightning in 2014-15, the team signed a deal with TIBCO Software Inc. — a leading data and analytics discovery platform — to better analyze the copious statistical information they were collecting. And that type of analysis will now be critical with the league’s new tracking data becoming available.
The need to quickly incorporate that new data within its expansion draft planning means NHL Seattle could make any senior analytics hires — especially any above Mandrycky — from within the league’s existing talent pool rather that importing outsiders unfamiliar with inner workings of teams. Unlike four or five years ago, when Mandrycky, Thomas, Tulsky and others were hired from online blogs, the league today is well-stocked with analytical minds.
That doesn’t mean bloggers aren’t still being hired. The Devils just picked up Matt Cane from Hockey Graphs to serve as their analytics director under VP Dellow, while longtime Hockey Prospectus author Rob Vollman last year became a senior analyst with the Los Angeles Kings.
A potential future NHL recruit is Dominik Zrim, 39, Montreal-based co-founder of the CapFriendly.com website devoted to salary cap issues. Zrim watched three years ago as the Vegas Golden Knights hired Tom Poraszka, founder of a competitor cap-related site, as their hockey operations analyst and said blogger poaching typically comes in spurts.
“There was a huge thing in spring 2014 where clubs were just scoping out guys and their websites and bringing them onboard,” Zrim said. “And then, it slowed down a bit where you might have one or two guys a year. But in the last six months, there’s been a spike.”
Zrim said one NHL assistant GM told him to expect “an arms race” for analytics staffers ahead of next season’s flood of new stats.
“I think teams are gearing up for this next evolution in hockey analytics and they don’t want to be left behind the eight-ball.”
Among bloggers not already with teams, Seattle fans might keep an eye on twins Luke and Josh Younggren from Evolving Wild in Minnesota. Mandrycky had an up-close view of their work while with the Wild.
Zrim agreed the Younggren twins have as good a grasp on analytics as any bloggers. He also listed Micah Blake McCurdy of the Nova Scotia-based HockeyViz site, Manny Perry of Corsica Hockey in Montreal and Brad Timmins from Natural Stat Trick in Ottawa as potential recruits.
One thing’s certain: Mandrycky should soon have more departmental co-workers than Tulsky did under Francis early on.
The Hurricanes offered Tulsky his initial part-time role not long after being one of only a handful of teams that paid to attend a seminar he hosted on the state of NHL analytics in a Philadelphia hotel conference room during the 2014 NHL draft. Tulsky said it still took a while to gain the trust of Francis and others.
“Anybody new, whether in analytics or a scout, needs to prove themselves a little bit,” Tulsky said.
Another reason Francis and company likely want their department fully operational well ahead of serious player decisions.