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Hurricanes hope strong analytics lead to wins

Carolina has statistically been one of best teams in League in recent seasons despite lack of victories

by Arpon Basu @ArponBasu / Senior Managing Editor

At first, Bill Peters played it coy.

When the Carolina Hurricanes coach was asked Thursday if he were a numbers guy, Peters deflected the question with his great sense of humor, one of the many things in his toolbox that make him very good at his job.

"I've got to be able to count to six so I don't get too many men on the ice," Peters said with a smile. "I don't have any money, so I don't look at any numbers in my account."

Then, suddenly, his face got serious.

"You're probably leading towards analytics," he said.

Yes, in the case of the Hurricanes, just about everything leads towards analytics, because they have been one of the statistically best teams in the NHL for years, yet one of the few that can't turn those statistics into wins.

"I like information. I don't like misinformation," Peters said. "If you tell me something, and I trust you, I'm going to use it. But if I don't trust you, I'm going to research it myself, I'm going to verify it, then I'm going to use it.

"Some numbers tell more of a story than others."

Peters was hired by the Hurricanes prior to the 2014-15 season, which is also when Hurricanes hockey analyst Eric Tulsky began working for them on a part-time basis before being hired full time prior to last season.

Tulsky is the one in charge of providing analytics information to Peters in the form of reports previewing and reviewing every game.

And Peters trusts him.

"Analytics are a big part of our game right now and we have one of the best in Eric Tulsky," Peters said. "He asks me for ideas. But he's smart, and I coach hockey. I've got nothing for him. I read his stuff, I ask him questions to try and get more information out of it. It provides us, as coaches, information, it provides management with information. It's a definite tool that can make you better."

Then, Peters stops and points at his eyes.

"But my analytics are right here, the ones I've always used," he said. "So I combine my analytics and I combine his analytics, we discuss it and it provokes thought. We're always trying to stay ahead of the curve."

To whatever degree he uses it in his coaching, the Hurricanes' analytics have been consistently strong under Peters. But they have not been rewarded for it, missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs every year since 2009, the second longest playoff drought in the NHL after the Edmonton Oilers, who haven't made the postseason since 2006.

Just as the Oilers look like they might be on the verge of ending that streak this season, the Hurricanes also are surging up the Eastern Conference standings. They had their five-game winning streak broken by the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday, but enter their game Saturday at the Ottawa Senators (7 p.m. ET; CITY, FS-CR, NHL.TV) as one of the hottest teams in the NHL.

"I think we're starting to realize what we can do in this League," defenseman Noah Hanifin said. "At the beginning of the season we started off on the road a lot, which is kind of tough. We had some games in the beginning we probably could have won but we let them slip away. Now we're doing a good job of playing a full 60 minutes. Our team feels real confident right now. We feel like we know our identity now."

This possible ascension toward the playoffs has been a long time coming for the Hurricanes, who have been doing things the right way since Peters was hired as coach.

Over Peters' first two seasons behind the Hurricanes bench, Carolina was ninth in the NHL with a 5-on-5 shot attempt percentage of 51.94 percent. The only other team in the top 14 over that span that did not reach the playoffs in each of the past two seasons was the ninth-place Winnipeg Jets, who made the playoffs in 2015 but not last season.

The Hurricanes (8-7-4) are third in the NHL in SAT percentage this season at 53.53 percent.

General manager Ron Francis said his goal when he took over from Jim Rutherford at the end of the 2013-14 season was to make Carolina younger and more talented, which takes time.

That time appears to be now.

The Hurricanes are led by defenseman Justin Faulk and forward Jeff Skinner, each 24 years old. Forwards Victor Rask (23), Teuvo Teravainen (22), Elias Lindholm (21) and Sebastian Aho (19) and defensemen Jaccob Slavin (22), Brett Pesce (22) and Hanifin (19) make up a very solid young core.

That is half of Carolina's regular lineup of 18 skaters that is 24 or younger.

"There's a lot of young pieces that we're asking to do a lot, but we're definitely tracking in the right direction," Francis said. "Hopefully soon those numbers can come to fruition."

The shooting percentage remains a problem this season (Carolina is 21st at 6.9 percent) but goaltender Cam Ward has a .954 save percentage over his past six starts after posting below average numbers for years. But he's had runs like this in the past, and they haven't lasted.

If Ward, 32, can provide the Hurricanes with solid goaltending all season, it would be a game-changer.

"When we play well in front of him and give him structure," Peters said, "he's very good."

There is still work to do, improvements to be made, but the primary ingredients for a turnaround in Carolina are in place. The Hurricanes just need to keep turning their sterling underlying numbers into wins.

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