When Penguins assistant general manager Jason Karmanos was first hired in 2014, one of his first priorities was to reshape the team's use of analytics and find someone who could take the organization to another level in that area.
Karmanos began searching for candidates on the hockey Twitter side of social media, and came across a 27-year-old Swissvale native named Sam Ventura. Ventura, who graduated from Woodland Hills High School and had just earned his PhD in Statistics from Carnegie Mellon University, co-founded the hockey analytics website war-on-ice.com with two other people.
Karmanos got in touch with Ventura, and the two hit it off. They agreed it would be a good mutual fit for Ventura to come on board as a consultant in 2015, and he eventually joined the organization full-time as Director of Hockey Research in 2017 after helping the Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cup championships.
And while it's normally Ventura's job to provide a quantitative perspective on hockey operations decisions, Karmanos's perspective on the decision to add Ventura is that it's his best one yet.
"I've said this internally, and am certainly not afraid to say it publicly - since I've been here, bringing Sam on board is definitely the best thing I've contributed to the organization," Karmanos said.
And the rest of the hockey world has noticed just how invaluable Ventura, now 32, is to the Penguins. He was recently named to The Athletic's Hockey's 40 under 40, a list of the best and brightest young people who are shaping the game's future.
"We're excited for Sam to get this recognition," Karmanos said. "He deserves it. Sam is the total package. He's obviously brilliant, but beyond that, I think he's got a way of connecting to people that I think is pretty rare for someone as bright as he is."
That communication aspect comes along with being involved in so many different parts of the business, which is what Ventura enjoys the most about his current role.
"My job is to provide a quantitative assessment of players, teams, strategies, contracts, and roster moves," Ventura said. "Sometimes, that means providing information to our management and coaching staffs. Other times, it means inventing new ways to analyze the game of hockey."
And the people on the other end of those conversations appreciate how humble and respectful Ventura is.
"That really is the best aspect that Sam brings to the table," Karmanos said. "Because he's a person that is the smartest person in the room most of the time, but you wouldn't know it by the way he carries himself. He genuinely listens to people and realizes that there's still things that he's learning on a daily basis. He's just a good person. He's creative, he's got great ideas. But he is also just an easy person to work with because he knows what it means to work on a team."
Ventura never thought he would have the chance to combine his love of hockey with statistics as a full-time job.
Ventura - who was 4 years old when the Penguins won their second of back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1992 - started out playing dek hockey at Penn Hills along with a lot of street hockey. He eventually played on the ice hockey and roller hockey teams at Carnegie Mellon while studying for his Bachelor's degree in Computational Finance and Statistics.
Ventura was always good at math, but didn't know much about the field of statistics. As a kid, all he knew was that he liked to study the box scores in the sports section each morning.
"I came to the field of statistics late in college, and I was excited by the idea of using data to inform decision-making in so many different areas," Ventura said. "I decided to go to grad school for statistics, and I was fortunate to learn from some of the best statisticians in the world."
The farthest Ventura thought he could go would be doing academic research on sports analytics, as his full-time job upon completing his PhD was being on the faculty of the Department of Statistics & Data Science at Carnegie Mellon.
"At the time, I thought that I would spend my entire career at a university - teaching, doing academic research, and working on sports analytics side projects with students," he said. "But when this opportunity with the Penguins came along, it got me thinking about other possibilities."
Now two Stanley Cups (and hopefully more) later, not only does Ventura love what he does - he's also proud to be part of a youthful hockey operations staff that general manager Jim Rutherford has put together, especially in important leadership positions.
Ventura's colleagues include video coach Andy Saucier, assistant video coach Madison Nikkel, director of pro scouting Ryan Bowness, WBS assistant GM/manager of hockey operations Erik Heasley, and data analytics coordinator Nick Citrone - who are all also under the age of 40.
"Over 40 or under 40, the most important thing is that we have people with a diversity of good ideas," Ventura said. "We definitely have that, and when we're making important roster decisions, it helps to have those different perspectives all weighing in. Jim does a fantastic job of taking everybody's opinions and coming to the right conclusion."