Eric Tulsky earned a B.A. in chemistry and physics from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in chemistry from California-Berkeley, then conducted nanotechnology research in such areas as DNA sequencing and solar energy.
All of which begs the question, what in the name of Gary Bettman is he doing working for a hockey team?
Better yet, why is he tracking a hockey player’s points-per-game average or puck retrievals off the dump-and-chase rather than, say, analyzing the order of nucleotides in a DNA molecule?
“I’ve always been a hockey fan,” Tulsky said. “It was something I was doing in my spare time, for fun, and found myself with an opportunity to make a career out of it.”
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Tulsky, 40, is the Carolina Hurricanes’ hockey analyst. He is a part of the NHL’s tide of analysts synthesizing the numbers, looking for trends, looking to gain an edge in the data.
Not that any of them will tell you precisely how they use the numbers. The Chicago Blackhawks have their own way of handling advanced analytics and have won Stanley Cups. Why let the rest of the hockey world in on it?
“The whole point is to get a competitive advantage, right?” Tulsky said. “So if you have a way to do something a little better than anyone else, you guard that with your life.”
There is no crystal ball. There’s no perfect predictor. The best we can do is raise the flag that, ‘Hey, this guy looks like he might be better than you think or this guy might be worse than you think.’
Hurricanes hockey analyst Eric Tulsky
Ask Tulsky about the Canes’ trade for forward Kris Versteeg from the Blackhawks, what the analytics said about Versteeg, and he politely declines. The same is true about forward Alexander Semin, whose statistical measurables seemed acceptable enough but didn’t keep the Canes from buying out his contract for $14 million.
“There is no crystal ball,” Tulsky said in general. “There’s no perfect predictor. The best we can do is raise the flag that, ‘Hey, this guy looks like he might be better than you think or this guy might be worse than you think’ and have people go take a closer look at it.
“Nobody is saying where analytics is right now, you could just stay out of the rink and just look at the computer and run the team successfully. That’s not where we are.”
Many hockey fans have a grip on basic analytics. Jim Corsi, a former NHL goalie and goaltending coach for the St. Louis Blues, began tracking the shots his goalies were facing years ago when coaching for the Buffalo Sabres. That led to the Corsi Rating, which measured the percentage of shots at the opponent’s net – including those blocked or missing the net – versus similar shot attempts on a team’s own net.
More shots usually meant more puck possession. More puck possession can mean more goals and, in theory, more wins.
Not that Corsi takes credit for the birth of analytics. The Corsi Rating came about because of Tim Barnes, who developed it and gave it its name.
Barnes, who went by the name “Vic Ferrari” when he wrote the “Irreverent Oilers Fans” blog, now handles analytics for the Washington Capitals.
Talk about sequencing. Hockey statistics – or “fancy stats” – begat more hockey statistics and now are myriad. Some are confusing, their meaning lost in a flood of numbers to those who prefer such ageless, base statistics as goals-against average and goalie save percentage.
Tulsky, a Philadelphia native who grew up cheering for the Flyers, worked part-time for the Canes last season.
“He’s another balance and check for us,” Canes general manager Ron Francis said. “You think you see things on the ice and he can help us in the regard of making sure we’re looking at things right or maybe we’re missing something and be aware of it. He’s a very bright guy, very passionate about what he does and the game of hockey.”
Tulsky once wrote the “Outnumbered” blog on SB Nation, earning an online following. And while he won’t divulge any analytical trade secrets now, some of his blog posts offer ideas of what he might consider important.
Tulsky, for example, wrote last year that a forward’s points-per-minute average peaks at age 24. He’s also written about “under-appreciated” goalies whose lower salaries don’t match his effectiveness in net and overall value.
The Canes traded for goalie Eddie Lack in June. He’s 27, helped the Vancouver Canucks get to the playoffs last season and his salary this season will be $1.3 million.
Were Tulsky’s analytics a big part of the decision to bring in Lack and trade away goalie Anton Khudobin? Or was it more simply a trade that saved the Canes money (Khudobin will make $2.5 million)?
Tulsky said he understands there remains resistance to the reliance on analytics, especially from those who prefer the old “eye-ball test” in evaluating players.
“I get it,” Tulsky said. “There’s a high burden of proof for overturning long-held conventional wisdom. ... One random little stat that goes against what you thought isn’t enough to say, ‘Well, everything I thought is wrong.’ But it might be enough to say, ‘Let me look at this a little closer.’”