From The Globe and Mail – James Mirtle
Brett Pesce has never played hockey this way.
Not when he was growing up on high-end youth teams in New Jersey, where the big lanky defenceman caught the eye of the U.S. national under-18 team as a kid. Nor when he moved to the University of New Hampshire, after which he was picked in the third round of the NHL draft in 2013.
It wasn’t until he joined the Carolina Hurricanes, and coach Bill Peters began re-explaining how to play the game.
“I’ve never been on a team where I’ve used the middle of the ice as much as I have on this team,” said Pesce, one of three rookies on Carolina’s blueline most nights this season. “They really encourage that. I always grew up with coaches telling me the middle of the ice is almost like a danger zone. Here they encourage it.”
The why behind that is a compelling story.
The Hurricanes rolled into Toronto on Thursday, under the radar but red hot. With a 12-6-4 record in their last 22 games, they were on the verge of climbing into a wild-card playoff spot despite icing a team with one of the lowest payrolls in the league.
On the surface, Carolina might look like one of many mediocre teams in the NHL.
But there’s an interesting experiment going on in Raleigh, N.C., these days. Ron Francis, the team’s Hall of Fame player-turned-GM, has made a bet that a Harvard-educated chemist named Eric Tulsky can help the underdog ’Canes turn things around.
They’re using analytics – hiring Tulsky to oversee that role last summer – and everyone has bought in.
What that means in practical terms is the Hurricanes are trying every night to be a puck-possession team. Going into their game against the Maple Leafs, they sat fifth in the league in score-adjusted Corsi (53.1 per cent), which is a measure of how well a team controls shot attempts at even strength.
It’s a statistic that Tulsky used to become one of the most prominent online analysts in the game beginning about five years ago, so it’s no surprise the Hurricanes are using it.
How they’ve done it is by focusing prominently on a) how they exit their zone, which is what Pesce is referring to when he talks about using the centre of the ice, and b) how they enter the opponents’ zone.
The Hurricanes coaching staff, for example, tells players to not use the boards to break out, preferring that they instead pop a pass to their centre, who should be nearby in support.
Coaches also want them to hold the puck and find a play, rather than simply advance it up the ice.
“Our coach says when you can, keep the puck, control it, build the play gradually,” Pesce said. “We always try to have the puck as much as possible on our sticks. I think we’re good at it …
“Essentially, they don’t want us dumping the puck. Everyone has the green light if they see an opportunity to get over the blueline while controlling it to do that. That’s how you make plays and create offence.”
Peters said some of the things Tulsky has suggested have changed the way they are playing this season.
“A little bit, yeah,” Peters said. “It changes the way you think about things, the way you analyze things. We have real good debates.”
The biggest thing keeping the Hurricanes rise in the standings from being more dramatic has been the struggle of their two goalies. Cam Ward, currently out with a concussion, and Eddie Lack have combined for one of the worst team save percentages in the NHL.
Carolina also lacks high-end offensive firepower, which will be a key focus as they continue to rebuild.
But the organization wasn’t expecting a playoff berth this season, not with a blueline this green (four of their top six are 23 or younger). Francis also has a huge decision to make on captain Eric Staal, who will be a free agent in July and turns 32 in the fall.
They have roughly $24-million (U.S.) in salary potentially coming off the books in the off-season, something that will allow a dramatic makeover of the roster with input from Francis, Tulsky and the rest of the revamped management team.
The hope is they can become the kind of underdog team that the Oakland Athletics have been, using data to outsmart teams that can significantly outspend them.
This recent hot streak may be the beginning of that transformation, should it come to fruition.
“There’s room in the game for analytics,” Peters said. “Are you ever going to base your lineup solely on the data? I don’t think so. But it provokes good thought and conversation.”
“We are playing well right now,” Pesce added. “We’re in the playoff hunt, and we’ve got a good Corsi. I guess the two relate to each other.”