Sometime during last football season, Namita Nandakumar was on the phone with her mom talking about Alexandra Mandrycky, NHL Seattle's data analytics leader. Nandakumar was raving about Mandrycky and explaining her new hockey operations role of building a world-class analytics group from scratch.
"Wow, that sounds so cool," her mom, Deepa Velayadikot. "I bet you would love to do that."
Mothers just know, don't they? Her mom's declaration made it is easier when Nandakumar told her parents she was moving across the country to accept a new role with NHL Seattle as senior quantitative analyst, after starting her career in 2018 with the hometown Philadelphia Eagles. Nandakumar grew up in south New Jersey and attended the University of Pennsylvania's esteemed Wharton School of Business. The job started a month ago-lots of Zoom calls--but Nandakumar remains at the family home, quarantined with her parents and sister.
Like her older sister, Riya, 16, is a lifelong Philly sports fan, rooting especially hard for the NHL Flyers and NFL Eagles, who won the Super Bowl in 2018. When Riya told her teen friends about his sister's new job, the primary question was "how could she betray us?!"
Nandakumar laughs over the cell phone connection, then talks about the reaction of her colleagues with the Eagles, widely deemed one of the NFL's most advanced analytics groups: "Even my co-workers and boss at the Eagles understand-an expansion team is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
The Mandrycky-Nandakumar connection started in 2017 at the Vancouver Hockey Analytics Conference (known as VanHAC), where Nandakumar presented her original research on what it means to "draft perfectly in the NHL." Mandrycky was instantrly impressed.
"At the time, there wasn't much available in the public sphere related to the NHL draft," recalls Mandrycky, NHL Seattle director of strategy and research. "Her work was a unique take on draft strategy teams should take. I was equally impressed by her ability to communicate her findings without overwhelming the audience with math... I left that conference knowing Namita would be able to do whatever she set her mind to, whether that meant working in sports, or not!"
For her part, Nandakumar "flew to a city where I didn't know anyone" not sure what to expect but taking advantage of spring break week to present her first research paper, which was part of her thesis work for junior and senior years at Penn. She met Mandrycky for the first time, getting lots of positive feedback on the 20-slide presentation from her future boss and others in the sports industry. Nandakumar says she was "blown away" by the reaction and that it marked the beginning of her sports career even as an undergraduate student.
"To be honest, when I met Alex I didn't even know who she was [a Minnesota Wild quantitative analyst and, before that, co-founder of the highly-respected War-on-ice website]," says Nandakumar. "It's kind of crazy if you draw the line from that conference to now."
Nandakumar fell in love with hockey as a young fan following the Flyers run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2010. When thinking about a research topic for her Wharton thesis, she was watching the 2015 NHL Draft. She admits to being "obsessed with the draft," the NFL first and then NHL. She says the two sports are comparable: Seven rounds and "conducive to finding value late." In contrast, major league baseball draft has 40 rounds. She has published explanations of her work on both The Athletic and Hockey Graphs websites, worthwhile reads for anyone looking to dig into the details. Nandakumar has presented at numerous sports analytics conferences, including gatherings at MIT, Carnegie Mellon and Rochester Institute of Technology.
That 2015 draft included three straight picks for the Boston Bruins in the first round (13th, 14th and 15th). The Boston picks were widely questioned by TV commentators, especially right wing Zachary Senyshyn, picked at No. 15 but rated 38th in the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau rankings. It inspired Nandakumar to construct her own statistical model with two major pillars: One, forecast how valuable a player will be over a pro career and, two, what number and round a player will be drafted. The first pillar has been widely studied and elaborated, but the second tenet is "a lot harder," quoting Nandakumar from that VanHAC conference in 2017. She is attempting to use data to eliminate the uncertainty about what other teams will do with their draft picks.
"What impresses me most about Namita is her creativity in terms of the problems she chooses to approach and how to approach them," said Mandrycky. "We need creative problem solvers as we pick our team to take the ice in October 2021 and beyond."
Nandakumar will continue her groundbreaking work with NHL Seattle, preparing for both the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, picking the franchise's first roster, and the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, stocking up younger players for the future. Regarding the expansion draft, Nandakumar says "we have to be ready for any scenario that comes our way." She is excited to be back in hockey and already hard at work coding, modeling, collaborating and more.
"I am so fortunate to have had two dream jobs already," says Nandakumar. "It's been amazing working for my childhood team. When I walked in the Eagles offices [first as an intern than full-time upon graduation in 2018], there was already a great organizational structure. I am happy to do my part to help it progress.
"I love hockey and it's fun to be back in the research. The most compelling reason [she took the Seattle job] is to build everything from the ground up. It's such a rare thing."
If you are wondering if football analytics applies to hockey, remember the two drafts mirror each other in both number of rounds and finding value in the later rounds. Nandakumar has taught us that in the preceding paragraphs. Mandrycky can give us more clarity on the NFL-to-NHL answer being a most definitive "yes."
"Namita brings a perspective of having experience working in a front office, so she understands different strategies for communicating and how best to reach our stakeholders," explains Mandrycky. "She can bring her best practices learned to our organization. The Eagles have been known as one of the most data-friendly NFL teams in recent history. Additionally, she has experience working with player tracking data, which will be key for our organization moving forward as the NHL begins collecting player and puck tracking data."
While VanHAC launched Nandakumar's professional life, she credits two books she read as a high school sophomore opening up her eyes and heart: "Moneyball," the Michael Lewis account of how Oakland A' general Billy Beane and Harvard-trained data analyst Paul DePodesta transformed how players were evaluated by major league baseball teams, and "Soccernomics," in which authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski deploy economics, statistics, psychology and business practices to establish a number of unexpected truths about world soccer powers.
"The books exposed me to statistics as a specific field of math," says Nandakumar. "It was about the time the 'Moneyball' movie came out. I did not picture myself in the role at first. No one [in the books or movie] looked like me or came from my background. But reading that statistics and math could be applied to sports, that started it all for me."