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Karmanos' First Priority is Analytics

Thursday, 06.12.2014 / 4:36 PM / Features
By Michelle Crechiolo

After finishing his college hockey career at Harvard, the Pittsburgh Penguins invited Jason Karmanos to attend their training camp back in 1996.

“It was the thrill of a lifetime, quite honestly,” Karmanos smiled. “To get the invite and be on the ice with some of the great players that were there at the time, it was nothing but positive memories.”

Now after 15 seasons in management with the Carolina Hurricanes from 1998-2013, Karmanos is back in Pittsburgh. The Penguins announced Thursday they had named Karmanos, 40, their new vice president of hockey operations.

“It’s kind of a strange full-circle on that for sure, to be coming to work for the Penguins,” Karmanos said.

Karmanos worked with newly appointed Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford during his time in Carolina in varying roles as vice president/assistant general manager and executive director of hockey operations, earning a Stanley Cup ring in 2006. Their relationship goes back many, many years.

“Jim knows that he’s got a lot of great people here in Pittsburgh,” Karmanos said. “He just wanted to bring me in the mix as well and I’m very thankful for that. I think it’s just the type of thing where we worked together for such a long period of time, we know one another very well and Jim knows what I can do to help.”

Rutherford said that while Karmanos will assist in all aspects of hockey operations, his first priority here will be re-shaping the organization’s use of analytics so that management has all the tools available in their decision-making process throughout the season.

“Being a guy that's been around as long as I have, some people are probably surprised that I use analytics,” the 65-year-old Rutherford joked. “But I've used them for a few years now, and I can tell you that it really makes a difference.”

* Karmanos helped Rutherford start the process of integrating analytics into their hockey operations department in Carolina, which he said is still a work in progress. Unlike other professional sports, hockey has been slower mainstreaming analytics into its culture. And in turn, that made it tough for people within individual organizations to feel comfortable integrating advanced metrics into everyday use.

But analytics have become much more prominent over the last season or so, with dominant teams like Los Angeles and Chicago open about the way they’ve embraced analytics to gain as many advantages as possible.

Rutherford has embraced analytics as well, and is adamant about doing his part to help the Penguins gain all of those advantages as well.

“In Carolina, we were just rounding into it where we were hoping for that consistency, which is what we’re trying to bring here throughout,” Karmanos said. “And that starts with Jim and his willingness to go there and to make analytics part of the process, and a significant part. So I’m excited.

“I think it’s important for people to know that we want to find an edge, we want to look at all those ways that help the club get to where we all want to get to.”

It’s important to note, however, that analytics aren’t something that’s completely foreign to the organization – a point Karmanos wanted to make clear, as Penguins associate GM Jason Botterill and director of player personnel Dan MacKinnon, among others, have worked extensively with an analytics consultant in recent years.

“I think the first thing to say is that I just want to recognize this isn’t something that’s new to the organization,” Karmanos said. “It’s not like it’s a complete culture change.”

The task moving forward, said Karmanos, will be to better integrate the analytics into the decision-making process where the data is available. As Rutherford said, at the end of the day he’s still going to make a gut decision when it comes down to calling players up, sending players down or making trades, but the analytics are a fantastic tool to use when making those calls.

“The key here is that over time, Jim has really developed a comfort level with the analytics and has developed a comfort level with using them in the decision-making process,” Karmanos said. “That’s not to say that replaces traditional methods of evaluation – guys watching games live, or video analysis of games, any of that stuff. That still goes on, obviously. But we firmly believe that using the analytics in conjunction with traditional methods just makes you stronger.”

And using analytics consistently throughout the organization will also be a focal point.

“(We want to bring) some consistency all the way from the top with the GM and Jim down to hopefully the coaching staff and into the locker room a certain degree,” Karmanos said. “The synchronization of that message and that awareness, in particular with the decision-makers, it really I think is the step we’re looking to take.”

* Analytics aren’t a “magic bullet,” as Karmanos put it. The use of advanced numbers, statistics and metrics aren’t going to singlehandedly solve all of the organization’s problems. But they can certainly help when used properly.

“It's not like baseball,” Rutherford said. “Baseball is an individual sport and you can either hit the ball or you can't or you can pitch the ball a certain way or you can't. Hockey is a team sport. When you're using those analytics, there are things that analytics are going to point out to you that your hockey people don't see. So I take those points, whether it's good or bad with a player, and then I go back and start questioning the hockey people — are we not seeing this?

The analytics aren't always right, and we're not always right. It's a great sounding board, really.”

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