Analytics as vital as scouting for Penguins GM Rutherford in weighing potential targets

Bill West
| Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016, 10:30 p.m.

When all of his organization's reports on a trade target finally end up in front of him, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford braces for what he'll see next.

What will his scouts, who travel from arena to arena in search of in-person revelations, say about the player in question?

What will his hockey operations department, which takes myriad off-ice aspects into consideration, say?

And what will the analytics programs, which sift through proprietary data to provide insights, say?

“It's only a headache when there's a huge difference of opinion,” Rutherford said. “When the analytics are saying that this player is a good fit for us, and the staff is saying it's not, or vice versa, that's when it becomes more difficult. But when it's starting to track a lot closer, even if there's a little bit of a difference, then it's not that big of a deal.”

On the eve of the NHL's trade deadline, Rutherford possesses little time with which to make sense of differences in reports on possible deals. At 3 p.m. Monday, the window will close. And Rutherford, with more information at his disposal than at arguably any point in his career as a front-office member, will hope he trusted the right input sources as the Penguins dive into the final five weeks of the regular season.

“It's one of the checkpoints we use, whether it's trade deadline or at any point in time,” Rutherford said of analytics. “When a player's name is brought up, everybody that's involved in the discussions ... is told at the same time.”

His first two trades of the season — swapping Rob Scuderi for Trevor Daley, and David Perron and Adam Clendening for Carl Hagelin — garnered rave reviews from casual fans and the analytics community. Saturday's acquisition of Edmonton defenseman Justin Schultz for a third-round draft pick also struck most as agreeable, particularly after rumors spread that the Penguins instead sought Calgary blue liner Kris Russell, a player viewed less favorably by the data crowd.

Rutherford sees no reason why traditional and new-age approaches to deal-making can't exist in harmony.

“I don't see any war (between analytics and scouting),” he said. “I think it's the way we do our business now, and I think it works. You do have different analytics companies that do things a little different. Over the years, it's something I've had to sort out, as to which ones work or which ones are better than others. But other than that, it's a real good resource.”

Rutherford's history with analytics — or at least what counted as analytics then — dates well into his time as Carolina's general manager. He counted on Jason Karmanos, his assistant general manager for 15 seasons with the Hurricanes, to supervise the data-driven department.

When Rutherford joined the Penguins' front office in June 2014, team president David Morehouse made mention of analytics' value at the introductory news conference. Not surprisingly, Karmanos, who was not made available by the Penguins for this story, arrived a week later to serve as the team's vice president of hockey operations.

By announcing the hiring of Carnegie Mellon professor and War-On-Ice.com co-founder Sam Ventura as a consultant in July 2015, the Penguins provided further evidence of their interest in what many regard as a relatively objective way to measure production and worth.

But they hardly separated themselves from the rest of the league in terms of their commitment to numbers crunching.

“I'm not surprised they're here,” Rutherford said of the analytics movement. “I'm not surprised everybody is using them. They help.”

The Penguins' online staff directory does not mention Ventura, nor does it list any other individual with “analytics” or a similar topic in the title.

Most teams are less shy about their efforts to employ data analysts.

Though each team likely utilizes its personnel somewhat differently, Arizona, Boston, Buffalo, Calgary, Carolina, Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Florida, Minnesota, New Jersey, the New York Rangers, Philadelphia, San Jose, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Vancouver and Washington list an employee on their online staff directories with “analytics” or some variation of “data analyst” in the title.

Brian Macdonald, Florida's director of hockey analytics since the start of the 2014-15 season, suspects the sport soon will follow baseball's trend of employing more analysts full-time as data grow evermore abundant.

Such a scenario might prove particularly beneficial when general managers weigh options on tight deadlines.

“If your analyst is in the office next door, the lines of communication might be a little bit more open because it's kind of easy to just pop your head in and ask a question,” Macdonald said. “Not that it's difficult to pick up a phone and do that (with a consultant). It's just human nature to pop over if you have a quick question.

“But I think just in terms of sort of being embedded in the organization and the culture of it, I think there are advantages. ... I think certainly being a full-time employee, there's definitely more buy-in on my part.”

And like almost everyone in the analytics community, Macdonald recognizes data cannot replace scouting as a resource for a team's top decision makers.

“(Analytics) is going to be adding information but not replacing any of the information that's already there,” he said. “There's too many things that you can pick up with your eyes that, at least to my knowledge, no one has programmed a computer algorithm to recognize that same information.”

Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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