Q&A: Penguins' Sam Ventura talks War On Ice, analytics, off-season moves

Penguins analyst Phil Bourque joins Hockey Central to outline the reasons why Kris Letang still has a lot left in the tank, and can still be a top defenceman on a Stanley Cup winning team.

Sam Ventura has a PhD in statistics from Carnegie Mellon University, helped usher in the current wave of analytics in hockey as co-founder of the War-on-Ice.com, played a key role in reshaping the Pittsburgh Penguins’ use of advanced stats and won back-to-back Stanley Cups with the club in 2016 and ‘17.

All that and he’s just 32 years old.

It’s the type of resume that can make you wonder, “what have I been doing with my life?”

After an off-season of upheaval in Pittsburgh, Ventura has been promoted to the role of director of hockey operations and hockey research. I spoke to Ventura last week about working under Hall of Fame general manager Jim Rutherford, the influence of War On Ice, attitudes toward analytics in hockey, the Penguins’ roster turnover and building around stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang at this stage of their careers.

Editors' Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Sportsnet: What's it like working with Rutherford? Are there any things you were shocked to find in common despite the nearly 40-year age gap? Or is there anything you butt heads over?

Sam Ventura: Just how much energy he has to continue working through these new complications that the world has presented us with. And so I think some people might be surprised to know that he's fiery as ever. He always has new ideas. And to answer your other question, I think the best thing about working with Jim is just that he really empowers the people who work with him and he trusts their opinion. And so for me, that's the exact -- for anyone really working in any industry -- kind of boss you want: someone who trusts you and someone who gives you the ability to make an impact in your organization.

Sportsnet: Is that something you found surprising coming in? Were you expecting to have to deal with some old-guard hockey-types?

Sam Ventura: Well, I tried to be as agnostic as possible and not really have any kind of expectations along those lines. I just tried to get to know everybody and learn how they work and try to adapt to what they do and I think that's paid off. I wouldn't necessarily say I was surprised. But you know, maybe pleasantly surprised, I guess.

Sportsnet: Do you have any stories that stand out when you think about your relationship with Jim?

Sam Ventura: Jim's a very family oriented person. The one thing I always think of when people ask me about, 'What's Jim like?' I think about when I told him that my wife was pregnant with our first child, and just how excited he was and the look that came over his face. It was a look of genuine excitement for me and for our family, and I think that really just highlights how great of a person he is. Like he's not just a GM in the NHL, he's a great person and a very family oriented person.

Sportsnet: You're known for this push in the early analytics movement with WAR On Ice, do you mind telling me how that all kind of came together?

Sam Ventura: When I was in graduate school, my program encouraged students to work on side projects and I was really fortunate that there was a professor in our department who is from the Toronto area and was a big hockey fan and very accomplished in the sports analytics field named Andrew Thomas, who agreed to work with me with a mutual interest in hockey analytics. That project started when I was just a first-year graduate student, but it just sort of snowballed and we kept working on it and working on it over the next five or six years, and eventually it turned into papers and software packages and what the world eventually saw as WAR-On-Ice.com.

And I think it just speaks to you the value of mentorship and then Andrew, being a Canadian statistics professor-hockey fan, how lucky I was to have him to mentor me along the way. And it speaks to just a little bit toward perseverance and the snowball effect that we had and continued to work on his research over the years and build it from the ground up and into what we think was a really nice website that we were able to provide data and analysis to people who were interested in it.

Sportsnet: In the immediate aftermath of WAR On Ice shutting down, I remember people being like, 'Where do we go now?' 'How do we navigate this post-WAR On Ice world?' And so many analytics sites have filled that void now, how's that feel to see?

Sam Ventura: When we first made the site, we had seen what had happened before with previous sites going up and then down when someone gets hired away or whatever. And we wanted to make sure that didn't happen when War On Ice went away, so we actually left all of the code that was used to build the site -- we just left it out there publicly, so if someone wanted to pick it up and recreate it, they wouldn't have to go through all the barriers that we had to go through to do it. So that was something that was intentional. You see all these sites out there now, and I'm not sure how many of them are actually using our old code, but we were committed to making sure that the resource lived on beyond us in some form for the whole community.

Sportsnet: Is there any publicly available work that you're really impressed with?

Sam Ventura: There's a lot of really good projects out there. I think some of the best are: Natural Stat Trick is a great website, HockeyViz is a great website and Evolving-Hockey is a great website. And the nice thing about those three is that they're constantly adding new features, and not just settling for what's already out there or has already been out there for the last five or 10 years -- they're constantly innovating. I think that's the spirit of what Andrew and I were trying to build -- just to build a culture of making things public and promoting innovation in this field of hockey analytics.

Sportsnet: Now that you've been in a front office for several years, how big is the chasm between publicly available data and the stuff that you or other teams can get their hands on?

Sam Ventura: It's pretty big and it's getting bigger. The league is going to have player-puck tracking data for the first full season in 2021 and we had it for the end of the playoffs last year. And it is a game-changer in many ways for us as an analytics department. And it definitely widens the gap between what's out there publicly and what's behind closed doors. It widens the gap in terms of the types of tools and methods of analysis that you'd have to use to really extract the most information out of these data sources as possible.

Sportsnet: Given your background, would you like more data to be out there from the league?

Sam Ventura: (Laughs) selfishly I would rather everything stay private, but I guess in the spirit of people educating themselves in terms of how to use data and statistical methods and everything, it certainly would be nice to see that same boom that has happened in other sports in terms of people doing independent sports-analytics research with tracking data, like what's happened with football, basketball and soccer. It'd be great to see that happen in hockey as well. I've actually tried to stay up to date with what's been happening, for example, in the NFL by doing research with some of my former colleagues to get some exposure to the kinds of methods that would be necessary to work with tracking data, practising with the different sport-tracking data to prepare for the current scenario, where we're going to have player-puck tracking data for the first time.

Sportsnet: The biggest analytics story the past few months came after Kevin Cash pulled Blake Snell in Game 6 of the World Series. With how much venom was directed at the analytics community in the aftermath, do you find there's that underlying attitude in hockey, where people are still ready to jump on any sign of failure?

Sam Ventura: Yeah, I can't speak for the rest of the league and I know for me, personally, I haven't faced that kind of backlash within our organization. We are unified behind the desire to win the Stanley Cup and I think everybody recognizes that working together toward that goal is better than working separately. So that's our goal and that's how we approach everything as an organization. Again, I don't know if other people around the league experience that, but it's not something I've experienced.

That was a pretty fun game in the World Series there... I obviously don't have access to data that their analysts have access to, but it was certainly interesting ... I don't know anything about pulling baseball pitchers, but it certainly seems like on a stage like that maybe you have to throw out some of the rules that you come up with over the course of the season ...

One of the most important things you can do as an analyst is to know the limits of what you're able to say with the data. Maybe it's the case that there are external factors like pressure, or whatever that might come into play in an elimination game in the World Series that aren't accounted for in your initial data set. So being careful about how you present results like that is important. Now, I don't know if any of that's true for that situation in baseball, so I don't want to comment on it, but I do think that understanding the limitations of what you can say with data is important when you're communicating results to people who actually have to make the big decisions.

Sportsnet: Speaking of limitation, what, if anything, can you glean from the Penguins' performance in the playoffs?

Sam Ventura: I guess maybe one thing would just be that we knew how good the team Montreal was heading in. Sometimes in hockey, this is just what happens. And when you face a team that has the kind of talent that they have anything can happen in a short series ... So I guess as a statistician I'm hesitant to say I've learned much from a four-game sample, but I would trust our coaching staff to do a complete evaluation of that and address what they might see as concerns with our players moving forward.

Sportsnet: Has there been a focus on puck possession, given Montreal's advantage in that area?

Sam Ventura: We knew that Montreal was a really good team coming into that series. I don't think it's all puck possession, I think there's more than one way to win a game in the NHL. And, again, it's a short series and anything could happen, so it's just we didn't come out on top that time.

Sportsnet: Going through some of Evolving-Hockey's GAR and WAR rankings from last year, I think most casual hockey fans would be surprised to see names like Bryan Rust, Jared McCann and John Marino among the top players in the league. How do the Penguins keep plucking these types of players out of relative obscurity and have them thrive next to their stars?

Sam Ventura: Oh, I think it's a testament to our scouts in identifying these players. Like I said, Jim is really trusting of all the people that work underneath him and so when we bring ideas to him about, 'This is a player that we think is really valuable, or could be really valuable to our team,' he trusts us and he gives us the resources to acquire those players. So, I think that's what happened. The players you mentioned, in particular, one of them is draft pick, two of them are trade acquisitions, so I think that just speaks to all areas of our organization contributing. We're a team that doesn't typically have a lot of draft picks, and so we have to get it right when we do have an opportunity to acquire a player and I think we've done a good job of that because of the trust that Jim gives us.

Sportsnet: Given their performances, was that something that was even in the realm of expectations?

Sam Ventura: Well, Bryan Rust has had pretty good numbers for a few years now, so I wouldn't say we were surprised by that. It's a great example of a player who has worked his way from the minor-leagues to the fourth line to participating in long playoff runs and Stanley Cup championships and working his way up the lineup all the way in the top six and that's kind of the attitude that we have as an organization of finding players who are willing to play the long game with us and work their way up and become the players that they're capable of being.

Sportsnet: On the flip side, the Penguins have taken some flak on Hockey Twitter this off-season for the Cody Ceci signing. What do you think he brings to the team? And what do you make of all the noise around him?

Sam Ventura: Yeah, I try not to pay too much attention to what people on the Internet are saying -- that's a dangerous game to play because you might find some people that think he did a great thing and some people think he did a stupid thing, and trying to sort through it just seems like a waste of time. I think the more important thing is that we just have to be confident in our process for identifying, signing and trading for players and that's something that we've worked on, and we feel pretty confident about that.

Sportsnet: The Penguins made a big splash in the off-season, trading away Cup-winning goaltender Matt Murray. He had so much success early on in Pittsburgh, why do you think he struggled to get back to that peak and what made you comfortable going forward with Tristan Jarry?

Sam Ventura: I have nothing negative to say about Matt Murray. I think we play very up-tempo style hockey and I think that presents challenges for any goaltender, and I think Matt did a great job of being the rock for us in the crease for the last five or six years. So I think he did a fantastic job and I think he's going to be really good in Ottawa as well.

… We're excited about Tristan, we gave him the new three-year contract this summer and I think that's a vote of confidence in him as a player and what he'll bring to the team over the next couple of years. We're definitely excited.

Sportsnet: The Penguins also made headlines by reacquiring Kasperi Kapanen, what do you think he brings to the table?

Sam Ventura: In terms of what he'll bring, I would look to the comments of our head coach Mike Sullivan recently where he just talks about his speed and the size he brings and his ability to contribute on both ends of the rink. I think it's hard to find players that combine all of those things. And we think that Kasperi is one of those players, so we were excited to acquire him.

Sportsnet: The Penguins biggest stars -- Crosby, Malkin, Letang -- are past what is generally considered peak age in hockey. How do you kind of effectively use their talents and build around them at this point in their careers?

Sam Ventura: We're not as concerned with age as we are just how capable the player is of playing. We believe that we just want to build the best team possible, so it's not so much about ... surrounding those players with talent, we're just trying to find the best players possible with all of our acquisitions. Tom Brady's, what, 46 now or something? 51? Who knows at this point? (Note: he’s 43) But I think there are athletes across all sports that have shown that you can be at the top of your game much later now than then you could, say, in the '90s.

You look at what's happening in tennis, for example, where the top-three players in the world are all in their 30s and excelling and playing at a level that's comparable or even better than when they were in their quote-unquote prime. I do think that with the way these players are training now that it does extend the window of what would be considered their prime years and how long they can be effective. So we don't have any concerns about those players and how effective they'll be for us. We're just excited that they're Pittsburgh Penguins and that they can help us win.

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