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Hurricanes on cutting edge of analytics with hire of nanotechnology chemist

Eric Tulsky , 40, is a Harvard- and Berkeley-educated chemist who specialized in nanotechnology, which essentially means he’s an expert in the manipulation of matter on a molecular level.

HARRY SCULL JR/AP

As Eric Tulsky tries to explain in layman's terms what exactly he did in his previous line of work, it quickly becomes apparent that there won't be anyone else quite like him in the Carolina Hurricanes' front office this season.

The topics of conversation include the unique properties of cadmium selenide, solar panel production, surgical marking and "energy storage things that I can't really talk about. My previous job was even more secretive than a pro sports franchise, so there's only so much I can share," he explains.

Tulsky, 40, is a Harvard- and Berkeley-educated chemist whose field up until two months ago was nanotechnology, which essentially means he's an expert in the manipulation of matter on a molecular level. Now he'll be trying to help an NHL team win hockey games.

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"He's an extremely bright guy," Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis said of his new hire, who is widely regarded as one of the top minds in hockey analytics. "We're very excited that he decided to join us full-time and move to Raleigh."

Tulsky spent the last few seasons working part-time for different NHL teams, including last year for Carolina. That the Hurricanes were able to woo him away from a high-paying tech job in the San Francisco Bay Area speaks to how far the league has come in terms of investment in data.

His promotion was one of nearly a dozen such personnel moves teams made over the off-season, building on what was an even busier hiring spree in 2014.

Last week, the Toronto Maple Leafs added Bruce Peter as a hockey research and development analyst, giving them four full-timers in a department that was created by assistant GM Kyle Dubas last season. Peter had been working for the Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League, and is expected to have a key role in improving the Toronto Marlies' use of analytics in a league where few statistics are widely kept.

Elsewhere, the Phoenix Coyotes made 25-year-old Ivey Business School grad John Chayka their assistant GM of analytics, the Red Wings hired Bryan Campbell as director of statistical analysis, the Penguins added a local statistics PhD grad named Sam Ventura as a consultant.

Andrew Thomas, a University of Florida data science professor who runs the widely popular analytics site war-on-ice.com, is also expected to be hired by an undisclosed team – believed to be in the Western Conference – in the near future.

Other teams that have added staff or are looking to upgrade their analytics personnel include Los Angeles, Minnesota, Montreal, New Jersey and Washington.

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It's a movement Francis – one of the highest-scoring players in NHL history – has embraced.

"There's little, subtle things the analytics will tell you," said Francis, who began studying advanced statistics after retiring in 2004. "There are certainly things in the analytics that go against the way that I was brought up to think the game at times, which is interesting. So you watch the games, you think you see things, and it's another balance and check in the process."

NHL teams are often secretive about these hires and the work these people do. But Tulsky wrote extensively in the public domain for a variety of publications prior to 2014, and the base principles he believes in are on record.

Much of his work concentrated on puck possession – through a statistic called Corsi – but he also made innovative gains in measuring the most effective way for teams to enter the offensive zone. That became part of a paper presented at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston that ultimately caught the attention of NHL players such as Zach Parise.

In short, Tulsky's analysis quantified that dumping the puck into the opponent's end was a much less effective way to generate scoring chances than attempting to retain possession.

In Carolina, he will be asked to push his work into uncharted territory, attempting to give the small-budget Hurricanes an advantage over other teams by dissecting the game in new ways. Tulsky has found a receptive audience in Francis and other 'Canes staffers – a key factor in convincing him to uproot his family from the Bay Area to join an NHL team.

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That kind of harmonious relationship isn't always the case: There are stories around the NHL about antipathy – or apathy – from established hockey people toward their new number-crunchers.

"I think those discussions only make us better," Francis said of the debates Tulsky inspired in the Hurricanes' front office.

For Tulsky, two months in, there's still a "pinch-me" factor involved in working for a Hall of Famer like Francis.

"These guys know a lot about the game," he said. "That's a big part of why I wanted to move out here and be with them. I'm going to learn a lot just being around the team and talking to them."

"Analytics has been in the game," Francis added. "It's not new to us. But the way he thinks and some of the things he's done in the past and some of the categories he's come up with are unique. He's never satisfied. He's constantly trying to make his work better and ultimately make the team better. That's the exciting part of working with him."

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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