The front office rebuild in Buffalo continued yesterday with the hiring of Sam Ventura as VP of hockey strategy and research. It may not sound like an exciting post, but experts in the field think the Sabres made a great move in bringing in Ventura from the Pittsburgh Penguins, where he helped the franchise win two Stanley Cups.
Ventura first made his name in the hockey world as part of the influential War-on-Ice analytics website, which he co-founded with Andrew Thomas (who went on to the Minnesota Wild) and eventually featured Alexandra Mandrycky (now with the Seattle Kraken). Ventura worked with Jason Karmanos in Pittsburgh and with Karmanos now in Buffalo as the associate GM, he is reunited with his like-minded compatriot.
"He's an extremely smart guy," said one NHL analytics expert. "A really good thinker, strategically. With Karmanos there and his long relationship with Sam, he clearly has demonstrated his worth to have that primary role that Karmanos has brought in to fit Buffalo."
How important was this hire for Buffalo? According to the insider I spoke to, the Sabres haven't been on the vanguard of analytics compared to some other franchises in the league, but getting Ventura on board with Karmanos certainly aims them in the right direction. The Sabres also have Jason Nightingale in a dual analytics/scouting role, but the team is still building up its front office after the big cull last year.
"There's been so much change there, it's tricky," said the analytics expert. "From the outside looking in it's hard to evaluate the motivations of transactions. Getting Taylor Hall signed for the price they did, that was one I was bullish on – it didn't work out for them, it more worked out for Boston – but there's an indication they've done some smart things. But I wouldn't say they were at the forefront of analytics. Before Karmanos, I would say they were actually going the other way, they were kind of laggards. They're definitely trending in the right direction now. Keeping a tight budget is paramount there and having a strong investment in analytics to avoid the Jeff Skinners of the world is going to be pretty important moving forward."
But what exactly will Ventura bring to the Sabres? It all comes down to having a quantitative lens as part of the decision-making process, whether that be on the pro side of things or the amateur scouting side.
When it comes to pro scouting, it's about how your team values one player versus another and how those players will trend for the duration of their contract. It's similar on the amateur side, though instead of contracts there is more focus on projection and how a certain prospect compares to another player in the same draft class.
The team's traditional scouts, the ones that go to the rinks, watch live games and talk to a player and his coaches, bring crucial information to the process and analytics isn't expected to replace any of that, but it can fill in the gaps and be a great tool. Merging the qualitative info from scouts and the quantitative info from the analytics department just makes for a more complete picture.
The Sabres currently have one of the smaller scouting departments in the league, so getting Ventura and his skill set on board could be incredibly beneficial.
"To not have that in the dialogue is very dangerous," said the analytics expert. "Having someone who, arguably, is one of the best in our field, is a massive advantage."