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Examining the Groundbreaking Work of the NHL's Latest Analytics Hire

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistAugust 26, 2015

Noah Hanifin, center, poses with team executives after being chosen fifth overall by the Carolina Hurricanes, during the first round of the NHL hockey draft, Friday, June 26, 2015 in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Alan Diaz/Associated Press

Last week, the Carolina Hurricanes announced an addition to their front office. Eric Tulsky, a hockey blogger whose credits include mainstream publications such as the Washington Post and appearances at MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, will now work as an analyst for the Hurricanes.

Given that hire, it’s worth taking another look at Tulsky’s work to see exactly what he’s bringing to the ‘Canes organization.

One item is an impressive resume. From the Hurricanes’ official release on the hiring:

A Philadelphia native, Tulsky holds a B.A. in chemistry and physics from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in chemistry from UC-Berkeley. He also conducted a two-year, post-doctoral study at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C., and worked in nanotechnology for 12 years. Tulsky’s research has helped enable unique nanotechnology solutions to problems in DNA sequencing, solar energy, displays, and energy storage.

Tulsky was also one of the online analytics community’s foremost innovators.

The project that most people will be familiar with is his work on zone entries. Tulsky tracked how teams gained the offensive zone and defended their own blue line, conclusively demonstrating the massive advantage a team gets from retaining possession when it crosses the blue line in a paper which was presented at the Sloan conference.

On one level, it was an obvious discovery; naturally, it’s better to gain the zone with the puck than it is without the puck. But Tulsky’s findings flew in the face of conventional wisdom, which overstates the risks of carrying the puck in and the benefits of playing a dump-and-chase game. They also shined a light on the value of defencemen who prevent opponents from carrying the puck into the defensive zone.

Tulsky’s work goes far beyond that one project, though. His blog on SBNation, Outnumbered, touched on virtually every aspect of the game and is one of the better places to learn about modern analytic thought. His (uncompleted) reference library for NHL Numbers is another.

Some highlights include:

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  • NHL aging curves. Tulsky looked at how the performance of player populations alters as they age. In some pieces, he confirmed what others have written, showing for example that scoring rates for forwards tend to peak around age 25. Elsewhere he looked at fine details, like what kinds of players age better than others.
  • Projecting players based on recent seasons. Tulsky examined how to properly weigh old data and new data and come up with the best predictions for the coming year, finding different numbers for goalies than for skaters.
  • The value of penalty differential. A quality that isn’t talked about a lot but can have a big impact is a player’s ability to draw more penalties than he takes. Tulsky dived into how much value that has for NHL teams.

That’s just a handful of examples of Tulsky’s work, which was wide-ranging and useful reading for any serious hockey fan. Doubtless, the Hurricanes will benefit from having him on board.

Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.

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