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2024 Stanley Cup Final

Moves By Bill Zito Built Florida Panthers into a Powerhouse



Florida panthers
Bill Zito, pictured here at the 2023 NHL Draft in Nashville, quickly got to work improving his team which lost to the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final. // Photo @GeorgeRichards

The Florida Panthers come into this year’s Stanley Cup Final a team that has evolved over the past few years — and impressively so. 

Two years ago, the Panthers won the Presidents’ Trophy but were eliminated by Tampa Bay in the second round of the playoffs.

General Manager Bill Zito was determined to improve the team.

Welcome Matthew Tkachuk and Paul Maurice.

Last season, the team reached the Stanley Cup Final, but it lost to the Vegas Golden Knights.

More improvement was needed.

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Last year’s run was largely adrenaline-fueled, with elements of luck, destiny, and a few fortunate puck bounces.

As underdogs, the Panthers played with house money throughout.

This year the story is different. 

The Panthers accumulated 110 points compared to 92 last season.

Although they scored fewer goals (290-268), this was due to Maurice’s tight defensive system working.

On defense, they gave up only 200 goals versus a whopping 273 last season.

On paper, this is a stronger team with higher expectations.

Of the 20 players dressed for the final game against the Rangers last Saturday, nine were not on the team last year.

More kudos for Zito, who was able to bring in under-the-radar players at team-friendly contracts while working within a tight cap situation.

His reputation for identifying talent preceded these latest moves.

The free agent signing of Carter Verhaeghe and the waiver pickup of Gus Forsling were classic acquisitions.

The last offseason was challenging. 

Defensive tightening was needed, and with goaltender Alex Lyon signing a well-deserved multi-year contract in Detroit, backup goaltending was needed as insurance.

Zito and his advisors went to work.

His problem was compounded with the knowledge that Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour would miss the early season recuperating from offseason surgery.

Zito had short-term cap relief but could not bring in higher-priced defenders. 

He had to pass up on big names like Dmitry Orlov and South Florida native Shayne Gostisbehere.

Some of Zito’s moves were a gamble, but almost every one was a winner.

Bringing in veteran backup Anthony Stolarz on a $1.1 million deal was a stroke of genius.

Stolarz allowed Sergei Bobrovsky more rest time and had the best season of his career.

Like Lyon before him, he probably earned himself a new contract, which the Panthers will not be able to afford.

Niko Mikkola was a known quantity, having played the better part of three NHL seasons in St. Louis before being traded to the Rangers as a deadline deal rental. 

He ended up playing in all 82 games for Florida this year.

Mikkola is not as feisty as the departed Radko Gudas but plays a tough, physical game and is not shy about mixing it up.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson was a bargain because of his Vancouver buyout. 

He came off several injury-riddled sub-par seasons but reverted to his old self in Florida.

Ekman-Larsson led the second power-play unit and had his best offensive season in five years.

Dmitry Kulikov was drafted by Florida in 2009.

After being traded to Buffalo in 2016, he played for seven different teams and seemed to be on the downside of his career.

Maurice coached him in Winnipeg when he had back issues but recognized his ability.

He was brought in at a bargain one-year deal for early season depth, but his play kept him in the lineup all year.

Kulikov was valuable on the penalty kill, as was new fourth-line center Kevin Stenlund.

The PK went from 76.0 (23rd) last season to 82.5 (6th) this year.

Likewise, Evan Rodrigues and Stephen Lorentz knocked around for a few seasons before finding a comfortable home in Florida.

The pieces added at the deadline completed the puzzle.

Kyle Okposo adds depth, experience and grit.

Vladimir Tarasenko is not the scoring machine he was in St. Louis, where he won the Cup, but he adds versatility and can still score.

His game-winning goal in the clincher against the Rangers is evidence of that.

Maurice explained that a lot was expected of Tarasenko and he came through. 

“He shows up and we get all banged up, so we have a different line,” Maurice said. “He’s the left, he’s the right. We made the adjustment in the (Rangers) series, and he moved with Lundell’s line.

“He likes talking hockey on the bench. I think that’s really important. So now he’s talking to Barky for a month and he gets in with Lundy and nothing’s changed. So he put his ego aside and just continued to get better for us.”

The new players have been so good that some of last season’s regulars, such as Ryan Lomberg, Nick Cousins, and Josh Mahura, have been forced to the sidelines and are very capable reserves.

Come the off-season, Zito will have a few more sleepless nights dealing with many expiring contracts, most of which belong to players who deserve a raise.

Right now, there is more pressing business at hand.

For More FHN Coverage of the Florida Panthers:

  • When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
  • Where: Amerant Bank Arena, Sunrise
  • National TV: ABC
  • Streaming: ESPN+/Hulu
  • Radio: WQAM 560-AM; WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (West Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); WCZR 101.7-FM (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM
  • Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932, NHL app
  • Series Schedule, All Games 8 p.m. on ABC — Game 1:Edmonton at Florida, Saturday; Game 2: Edmonton at Florida, Monday June 10; Game 3: Florida at Edmonton, Thursday June 13; Game 4: Florida at Edmonton, Saturday June 15; Game 5*: Edmonton at Florida, Tuesday June 18; Game 6*: Florida at Edmonton, Friday June 21; Game 7*: Edmonton at Florida, Monday June 24. (*) – If Necessary
  • How They Got Here — Florida: d. Tampa Bay 4-1, Boston 4-2, New York Rangers 4-2; Edmonton: d. Los Angeles 4-1, Vancouver 4-3, Dallas 4-2.
  • This Season (Florida Won 2-0) — At Florida: Panthers 5, Oilers 3 (Nov. 20). At Edmonton: Panthers 5, Oilers 2 (Dec. 17).
  • Last Season: Edmonton Won 2-0
  • All-time Regular Season Series: Oilers lead 23-16-0, 3 ties
  • Postseason History: First Meeting

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