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Penguins bring in analytics expert from Carnegie Mellon

| Wednesday, July 22, 2015, 12:09 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Computer screens show hockey analytics on War-on-Ice.com as Sam Ventura of Point Breeze sits for a portrait at his Carnegie Mellon office in Oakland on Sunday, May 31, 2015. Ventura, who is working toward his doctorate in statistics at the university, helped to develop the website. Devoted to analytics in hockey, the site has gained popularity as analytics have grown.

Hiring Sam Ventura as a consultant responsible for analytics only is the start, Penguins vice president of hockey operations Jason Karmanos insisted.

With hockey becoming more data-driven, building an analytics team is one of the Penguins' priorities, one over which Karmanos will have significant influence.

And one that started with the hiring of Ventura, a 27-year-old Swissvale native who, with Andrew Thomas, cofounded hockey analytics website war-on-ice.com.

“My hope is that over time we can build an analytics team,” Karmanos told Trib Total Media. “In order to do that correctly, ideally you would have full-time positions on staff. That's the goal. I think (hiring) Sam was a huge step in that direction.”

Ventura, who recently earned his Ph.D. in statistics from Carnegie Mellon, will start teaching there in the fall as he had planned.

The site, which has become wildly popular, isn't going anywhere, either. Ventura and Thomas have taken steps to ensure war-on-ice.com will live on after they take on other roles.

“I guess you could say I sort of have two dream jobs right now,” Ventura said. “My real job is really what I've wanted to do for a long time, and that's to be a professor, teach and do research that's impactful in ways outside of the sporting world.

“Growing up in Pittsburgh and being a Penguins fan, I couldn't be happier to help out in whatever ways I can help out now.”

Since his hiring last June, Karmanos said he had received “hundreds” of letters from people interested in furthering the Penguins' analytics effort. One stood out. It was Thomas' recommendation of Ventura.

Karmanos became more familiar with Ventura throughout the season via social media and war-on-ice.com. Then, after the Penguins were eliminated in the playoffs, he learned Ventura would become an assistant coach and director of analytics for CMU's club hockey team.

“When I saw that he had taken the assistant coaching job, it left me with that impression that he was considering hockey for his future,” Karmanos said. “Obviously, someone with his background is in demand in today's world. He can get a job in a lot of other industries, but he has a real passion for the game.

“Given his skill set and how he handles himself, I think there's a very real possibility that he could be a full-time employee with the Penguins in the future.”

Hockey has lagged behind the three other major pro sports when it comes to data and what people derive from it, in part because of its infrequent stoppages and fast pace.

Sites like war-on-ice.com, along with ExtraSkater.com (now dark) and behindthenet.ca, have brought analytics more mainstream.

Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, it became Karmanos' charge to organize how the Penguins obtain, view and use analytics. He and general manager Jim Rutherford retained an anonymous, outside firm to gather data.

Ventura's hiring doesn't erase that — Karmanos views analysts much like scouts, that an organization should have several — but it does push the Penguins further in the movement.

“It's not just about having a department and checking that off the list,” Karmanos said. “It's about finding the right people that can work with all the other aspects of hockey operations that need to take place. Sam is a great fit for that going forward.”

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jmackey@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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