Sports

/

ArcaMax

Luke DeCock: Eric Tulsky never expected this, but the Hurricanes' new GM is embracing the challenge

Luke DeCock, The News & Observer on

Published in Hockey

Eric Tulsky didn’t set out to crack the hockey code or win a Stanley Cup. He was just trying to build a better electric-car battery. The hockey analysis and blogging? Just a hobby. An interest. An avocation.

Ten years ago, before he joined the Carolina Hurricanes and switched careers midstream, he never saw this coming: As soon as Wednesday, the Hurricanes will officially name Tulsky, their interim general manager since Don Waddell left last month, his permanent replacement.

Tulsky’s journey from scientist — he has a doctorate in chemistry from California and, at last count, 27 patents largely in nanotechnology — to hockey executive makes him utterly unlike any of his 31 new peers. And if they’re surprised, imagine what he would have thought a decade ago.

“It would have shocked me,” Tulsky said. “A month before I took a job with the Canes I did not even think it was possible I could work in hockey. I was looking for one-off consulting gigs to do on the side because I thought it would be fun. It never really occurred to me that it could really be my job until it was.”

For 10 years the leader of the Hurricanes’ constantly expanding analysis group, first under Ron Francis and then under Waddell, Tulsky’s fingerprints are all over the team that, after three years and no conference-finals wins as a prime Stanley Cup contender, will undergo some salary-cap influenced retooling this summer — making this less of a change in direction and more of a reinforcement of one.

When Tom Dundon bought the Hurricanes in 2018, he expected to have to build a top-flight analytics department from scratch, based on the antiquated way the franchise was run otherwise. He found out the people he needed were already in place. And when Waddell, the ultimate hockey insider, departed to run the Columbus Blue Jackets, Dundon turned things over to the ultimate hockey outsider.

“When I started the process of talking to other people, it only reinforced what I already thought,” Dundon said. “He was going to be the best choice.”

Because of his background and rise to power, Tulsky’s tenure as general manager is unavoidably going to be seen as a referendum on analytics in hockey, especially to the traditionalist gate-keepers who hold so much sway in the sport.

Never mind that people without playing, scouting or agent backgrounds have had success in other sports — no one has ever been worried whether Theo Epstein could throw a slider — or that Tulsky interviewed for GM jobs with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks. He will nevertheless carry that burden, even if the Hurricanes’ process won’t demonstrably change from how things were run under Waddell.

Tulsky was an important voice in the way the Hurricanes were built under two different general managers, latterly in charge of both analytics and pro scouting for the past four years, and Rod Brind’Amour, Darren Yorke, Justin Williams and the scouting staff will continue to be important voices as they were under Waddell, and the overall direction of the operation will continue to be set by Dundon.

“Analytics has never made a single choice for us, even though that’s the perception,” Dundon said. “It’s just one input into a much larger conversation around fit and character and work ethic.”

One thing that will change: Unlike Waddell, Tulsky won’t have to manage the business side of the franchise. The Hurricanes will be hiring for that. His focus will solely be on hockey. But he will not be alone.

“We talk about this being a group-dynamic decision-making process, and it’s important to convey how important Rod’s voice is in that, how important Darren’s voice is in that,” Tulsky said. “We are probably going to have to add some additional bandwidth to our management team and those people will be important voices, too. This is not a one-man show. I couldn’t do it on my own. Rod has a huge piece in everything we do, and Darren is essential to making this work.”

That said, the timing is awkward from a judge-the-new-guy perspective, at least right off the hop. Waddell’s departure coincided with a major inflection point in the Hurricanes’ future, with so many impending and inevitable departures coming in two weeks as contracts expire. The integral core won’t change, but so many of the pieces orbiting around it will, even if just how many remains uncertain at this point.

“I don’t think anything is off the table yet,” Tulsky said with regard to the possibility of re-signing Brady Skjei and Brett Pesce and the other unrestricted free agents, but the realities of the salary cap and the free-agent market mean there will be players leaving, and there will almost certainly be a short-term competitive impact as the Hurricanes retool.

But Tulsky is no stranger to playing the long game. Before working for the battery company, he worked in biotech and for a solar company, working diligently on technologies that might not see the light of day for years, managing research teams, justifying expenditures and the pace of progress to impatient CEOs and boards of directors.

“I come from a nontraditional background,” Tulsky said. “I think a lot of people wonder how that might be a negative and wonder if the things I haven’t done that some people have done will limit me or hold me back. People who have worked closely with me have come to understand that it also has prepared me well in many ways.

“(This) is ultimately an organizational leadership position, and my background gave me a lot of training in organizational leadership, in management, in organizational dynamics, in mentoring and in organizational process. I think that this role puts me in position to take advantage of all those experience that I’ve had.”

His background in applied research and affinity for hockey — he grew up a Flyers fan in Philadelphia — led him to apply those skills to the game he loved. Soon, writing for various blogs and websites, he started seeing things he thought NHL teams were missing. But it was always a sideline to his real work. If an NHL team wanted to pay for his insight, he was willing to listen.

 

Francis did him one better, hiring him full-time with the Hurricanes in 2014. Tulsky’s life veered away from its expected path there, bringing his family along for the ride. Tulsky’s son, now in college, joined the Junior Hurricanes. Several of his wife’s oil landscapes hang on the walls of his office at PNC Arena.

“Honestly, it was not easy to abandon the training I put into my previous job,” Tulsky said. “But ultimately, I was following a passion. I liked chemistry, but I didn’t set up a lab in my garage and do chemistry in my spare time. I was working in hockey just for fun on the side. Being able to make that into a career, it’s hard to beat that.”

And now, it’s his show to run. In other organizations, that might be a disruption. Under Francis and Jim Rutherford before him, the general manager was the final and sometimes the only authority. The way the Hurricanes work now, it’s merely elevating one of many contributors to the top of their unique decision-making process. Their GM is, at times, as much a facilitator as an instigator, making the calls to other GMs and agents to effect decisions made collectively.

Waddell, after decades as a general manager, was a natural at that. But Tulsky has been watching and learning for years. He’s not coming into it cold. He already made his first signing, bringing back impending free agent Jalen Chatfield on a three-year deal. He has yet to make his first trade, although it will be a mild surprise if Martin Necas isn’t moved before or during the draft at the end of the month.

“We have 15 scouts on staff, and they don’t need me to be a 16th scout,” Tulsky said. “They need me to help put them in positions to be effective and to make the best use of the information they provide. I think my background makes me really well suited to doing that.”

This will inevitably be portrayed as the revenge of the nerds by the old-school hockey folks who traffic in such cliches, because the hockey culture has always been insular to the extreme. But if anything, it’s proof that love of the game can matter as much as playing it, and it only reinforces the front-office dynamics that made the Hurricanes a contender, and can again as the roster evolves.

This isn’t the career Tulsky expected. But it’s one he embraced long before he realized where it would take him.

New Hurricanes GM Eric Tulsky on …

— This offseason: “This is a tricky summer with a lot of outstanding players reaching free agency, and we have a lot of work to do to mold the team around that reality. It’s going to be hard to avoid losing some talent, and that’s going to hurt. We’re going to lose some great players, and that’s going to hurt. We’re going to lose great people, guys we’re really going to miss in the locker room. It does open up some opportunity for players to get more ice time and bigger roles on the ice. And I think we’re going to see some players step up and seize that opportunity. But it’s also really important for this management group to find ways to build around what we have and supplement the players we have and make sure they have the teammates and the leaders they need to continue taking steps forward. I think we’ve shown in the past that we can be creative and find solutions people may not have been thinking about, and we may have to rely on that here.”

— The group: “I feel great about this group. This team has been consistently excellent I would say for four years. Over four years there’s only one team that has more regular-season points than we do and only a few that have more postseason wins. Obviously, nobody goes into this business dreaming of someday having a bunch of regular-season wins and a series or two each year. So nobody’s going to be satisfied until we reach the goal. But I think my predecessors deserve a ton of credit. Ron (Francis) assembled the group that was ready to break out and Don (Waddell) took the team to the next level. And Rod (Brind’Amour) has been a huge piece of that and will continue to be as we do what we can to take that final step.”

— The free agents: “We are still talking to them. There are a lot of possibilities about how we shape this team going forward. And we are doing everything we can to keep as many of the players as possible. These guys have been with us for a long time and they’ve been a big part of what we’ve done. And if there’s a way to get a deal done, we want to do that. The reality of the cap is, sometimes we won’t be able to. But yes, we are continuing to try.”

— Contract negotiations with restricted free agent Seth Jarvis: “I’ve talked to his agent. We both would like to get an eight-year deal done. We have not talked about what that would look like. We have July 1 (unrestricted free agents) we need to sort through and figure out what we have left. But, look: Jarvis is going to be with us for a long time, and figuring out what the term is and what the dollars are to make that happen is still in front of us.”

— The goaltenders, Pyotr Kochetkov and Frederik Andersen: “I feel very good about them. Again, we’re never complacent, so if there is something available, we will be looking at it. I think that’s just a universal truth of this organization. But I’m completely comfortable with those two.”

— What it will take to compete for the Stanley Cup:“We just want to get better. Honestly, I think one of the things you ask yourself is what this team needs to do to get over the hump. And I look back at history, and Chicago was very different from Los Angeles. L.A. was very different from Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh was very different from Washington. Washington was very different from St. Louis. So I don’t think there is one thing you need to do. There is not a magic solution that will get us over the hump. We just need to keep finding ways to get better.”

— Finding ways to get better: “One of the toughest things for us building the roster is we have a very deep team. I think every player on our roster is good. And I mean that genuinely, not the way that you say you love all your kids equally. It’s hard to improve on good players. So we’ve done a good job of building a roster that makes it hard for me to do my job of making it better. But that is my job now.”

— Making the most of the NHL’s new player-tracking data: “Right now is the time to be stepping up to get us the ability to make the best use of that data as fast as possible. And it is a long-term research project to do that. I don’t anticipate staffing up massively in the near future because it’s hard in the early stages of a long-term project to justify a huge investment. But I think over time, people are going to find they get more and more return out of the richer and richer data sets that we have and it’ll be easier to justify building out a staff to make use of that data.”

____


©2024 The News & Observer. Visit at newsobserver.com. Distributed at Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus