SSC-908_Analytics Team Draft Feature_Web

Sam Ventura and his hockey analytics staff estimated there was less than a 10-percent chance that Zach Benson would still be on the board when the Buffalo Sabres made their selection with the 13th-overall pick in the 2023 NHL Draft.

So, when the Sabres’ vice president of hockey strategy and research watched as Benson fell to 13, it made the months of work that he, data scientist Domenic Galamini Jr., and data engineer Matt Barlowe had done leading up to the draft more than worth it.

The analytics group, in addition to the rest of the hockey department, was excited about the pick, and the 18-year-old subsequently earned a 23-man roster spot following a productive training camp.

Benson went on to record 30 points (11+19) in 71 games in his first NHL season, finishing ninth among rookie forwards in points, ahead of fellow 2023 first-round picks Leo Carlsson (second overall) and Adam Fantilli (third overall).

With the 2024 NHL Draft a week away, Ventura, Galamini Jr., and Barlowe are once again in the final stages of their draft process as the Sabres prepare to make eight picks.

As the Sabres’ hockey department continues to meet to finalize its list of prospects, spoke with the analytics team to learn more about the data science part of the draft process.

Sam - Web

Sam Ventura - VP of Hockey Strategy and Research

The evolution of hockey analytics

Ventura began his career during the 2015-16 season as a team consultant for the Pittsburgh Penguins, a role he held during the club’s back-to-back Stanley Cup championships. He was promoted to director of hockey operations and research for Pittsburgh in 2017, then joined the Sabres ahead of the 2021-22 season.

Along his journey, Ventura has noticed just how much data science in hockey – particularly in prospect evaluation – has grown.

“Historically, people like us coming from a stats perspective looking at the draft were forced to use the only information we had available to us,” he said. “Which five to 10 years ago, was really just games played, goals, assists, plus-minus, penalty minutes. In rare cases, we knew a player’s time on ice.”

Today, the data the analytics team has on draft-eligible prospects is similar to the data used to evaluate NHL players, which allows Ventura’s team to objectively quantify prospects’ skill sets in ways that were not possible before.

As a result, the group has a much better understanding of which skill sets and styles of play tend to translate well as players move up into professional hockey.

“There’s a ton of draft-eligible players that I probably would have strongly supported a few seasons ago without this higher-quality data who we have much lower interest in now, after being able to better understand the details and the nuances of their game,” Ventura said.

This data, which gives hockey departments an in-depth look at draft-eligible players in ways public-facing data does not, permits analytics teams to project a full range of possible outcomes for each player, including their floors and ceilings.

Using Benson as an example, Ventura pointed to his offensive talents, puck management, competitiveness, defensive commitment, and backchecking as attributes the team can now quantify when projecting a prospect’s success at the pro level.

“Checking so many of those boxes gives us a level of confidence about what his floor is on projection as an NHL player,” Ventura said. “And we apply that same kind of decision-making process to all draft-eligible players for which we have that data.”

The draft-prep process

The analytics team begins its process by collecting data on every draft-year eligible prospect across a variety of metrics and evaluation settings.

With that data, they can narrow the scope of players for Sabres scouts to focus on.

“If you look at draft-year eligible players for this season, there’s like 32,000 players in our data set,” Barlowe said. “If you include plus-1 and plus-2 draft year players that were eligible in earlier drafts, that gets up to like 100,000 players – numbers that are just very hard to watch all at once. A lot of our process is helping – especially later-round picks – whittle those numbers down into manageable numbers that our scouts can then go watch.”

While the scouts go watch the players, Ventura’s team watches the high-quality data it has coming in on each prospect. The challenge is deciding how to appropriately weigh all the information received from each evaluation setting.

NHL teams are scouting draft-eligible prospects playing in over 30 different leagues from all over the world. In Europe, specifically, a variety of factors impact evaluation in a single season, including age of competition, level of competition, and tournament play.

“For some players, we have over 10 different evaluation settings that we are analyzing across the two seasons leading up to their draft, just between the various leagues and tournaments that they play in at different ages,” Ventura said.

The main goal is to identify which players are performing consistently across their various evaluation settings.

“It really starts with having an understanding of who players are as they come into the season and updating our opinions on those players progressively as we get more and more data coming into our systems throughout the season,” Ventura said.

Ventura’s group has developed models that project future player performance, placing more emphasis on certain areas of the game. The process helps Ventura, Galamini Jr., and Barlowe track metrics that players can control, like effort, to pick out which players who exemplify the characteristics that correlate with success in the NHL.

“That extra data kind of helps us tease out those players who score a lot of goals but also do all these extra things that translate well to NHL success, the players you would want on your team in the playoffs,” Barlowe said.

Benson, for example, met many of the team’s criteria despite being an undersized forward in the draft.

“Not only did he bring offensive production both as a goal scorer and as a playmaker, but Zach had a knack for contributing in a number of areas,” Galamini Jr. said. “For example, winning puck battles, managing the puck and playing a sound defensive game. He did things that are sought-after traits at the NHL level and checked a lot of boxes for us.

"But obviously, it gets dicey when you like some aspects of a player, and you don’t like others. And that kind of happens as you get deeper into a draft, you have to live with some of the flaws and try to figure out how everything balances out at the end of the day.”

Ventura and his team then independently evaluate each prospect from a strictly stats perspective, using their agreed upon process and criteria to form their own lists before the larger group gets together. The main challenge is preventing internal bias from coming into play and remaining objective by using the data to tell the story.

The group agrees to not read any scouting reports or watch any video on a player until they form a strong opinion through the data. Often, the analytics team’s opinion of a player will resemble the scouting opinion.

“It’s rare that our description of a player differs in any significant way from a scout’s description of a player,” Ventura said. “And so, I find that our opinion and the scouting opinion have come pretty close together after we’ve developed the models that we’re using for player evaluation now and really built out the depth at which we can look at the details of a player’s game.”

Analytics Team - Web

Domenic Galamini, Jr. (Data Scientist) and Matt Barlowe (Data Engineer)

Collaboration with scouts and management

Once Ventura, Galamini Jr., and Barlowe have formed their opinions from the data, they then meet with the rest of the hockey department to discuss and debate players – a process that culminates with a final list on draft day.

Ventura believes the process works as a result of the environment Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams has built in the room – where everyone must remain open-minded and understanding of other people’s perspectives. Assistant general manager Jerry Forton and assistant director of amateur scouting Jason Nightingale also help foster this environment by seeking input early in the process and moderating and facilitating discussion in meetings.

Disagreements and debate are encouraged in the room in order to make the best decisions for the organization. As the scouts and analytics team bring forth their thoughts, Forton and Nightingale refrain from imposing their opinions on the group but remain eager to have discussions.

“Having that mindset as the backdrop for all of our scouting meetings really creates an environment where people are encouraged to speak their mind and encouraged to disagree, encouraged to listen to and really carefully consider the other person’s perspective,” Ventura said.

Ventura said the process encourages the larger group to work together as one team with the goal of getting the answer right. The discussion gives the hockey department the opportunity to get on the same page about each player before weighing relative strengths and weaknesses to continue to shape the list and move forward with confidence on draft day.

“When it comes time to actually make decisions at the draft table, even if I’m lower on a player than a particular scout or whatever, we all agree that the process that we’ve used to come up with our final list is the best process that we can come up with,” Ventura said. “And so, we have very unified support in pursuing players that we’re targeting at the draft table every season.”

Forton’s final draft list incorporates the opinions and recommendations from scouts, management, and Ventura’s group. 

“We really believe in this collaborative process where, as an organization, we are identifying players with strong support from both the scouting and stats perspectives,” Ventura said.  “Our scouts are incredibly open-minded and eager to compare notes and discuss players, and their feedback has made us better at what we do.”

When the Sabres are on the clock with their first pick in the 2024 NHL Draft, this collaboration between Ventura, Barlowe , Galamini Jr., and the scouting staff allows the Sabres to make the best decisions at the draft table – much like they did in selecting Benson last year.