SUNRISE — With his Florida Panthers a win away from advancing to the Stanley Cup Final for just the second time in franchise history, Bill Zito was named a finalist for the Jim Gregory General Manager of the Year Award on Wednesday.
Now in his third season with the Panthers, this is Zito’s second nomination for the award.
It comes 10 months after Zito pulled off one of the biggest summer blockbuster trades in NHL history.
”This is for the day he showed up and not just for this year. This is a continuation of everything that has happened here” said Paul Maurice, whom Zito brought in to coach the Panthers last June.
“He has a great eye for players and has this great balance of being exceptionally aggressive when he sets his mind to ‘this is the right path.’ But he is not aggressive in style. He knows there is a time to be patient, knowing where your team is at and let your players develop and grow.
“He took a look at his team last year and said ‘we need this specifically’ and then having the courage to pay the price to get exactly what it is you believe you needed. … He’s been right on.’’
Zito has complete remade the Florida roster in his three seasons at the helm, with only Sasha Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, Sergei Bobrovsky and Eetu Luostarinen remaining from the team which lost to the Islanders in the 2020 postseason bubble before Zito was hired to replace Dale Tallon.
In his time with the Panthers, Zito has traded for players such as Patric Hornqvist, Sam Bennett, Sam Reinhart and Brandon Montour while signing free agents Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair as well as signing Barkov to the richest contract (8 years, $80 million) in franchise history.
Florida also claimed Gus Forsling and Josh Mahura off waivers.
His biggest move came last July when he pulled off a blockbuster.
When word got out that Matthew Tkachuk told Calgary he would not sign a long-term extension with the team starting trade talks, Zito put together a package the Flames could not turn down.
Zito got a little bit of flak for the haul going to Calgary — all-time leading scorer Jonathan Huberdeau, top-pairing defenseman MacKenzie Weegar, a prospect and future first-round pick — but he was going to get Tkachuk or go down swinging.
Tkachuk ended up scoring a career-high 109 points, is a finalist for the league MVP award and has become one of the heroes of Florida’s run through the postseason with three overtime goals.
He was also the MVP of the All-Star Game held in South Florida.
“I was in Winnipeg packing,” Maurice recalled when Zito told him he wanted to go after Tkachuk.
“I was thinking ‘there is no way you’re going to pull that off.’ I don’t mean that about him. He told me he was looking at Matthew Tkachuk and what I thought. I didn’t think they would give him up. But, OK. He paid a price for it, we talked about it and he was comfortable with it. He was very clear in his mind this was the guy he wanted and the price he was going to pay was well worth it.”
While Zito faced from local criticism from fans and others who were not happy to see the likes of Huberdeau and Weegar go, with those two becoming free agents at the end of this past season, the Panthers had to do something.
The team probably could not have afforded to sign both of them and may not have wanted to offer what either player wanted based on their past performances and standing with the franchise.
With Tkachuk, the Panthers got a 25-year-old superstar just entering the prime of his career.
And, they pulled off the first sign-and-trade in NHL history as Tkachuk agreed to an eight-year contract worth $76 million that he technically signed with Calgary before being traded to the Panthers.
“There was a very short window and the timeframe was very quick,”Zito said after the trade was completed.
“When you have an opportunity like this, you need to pursue it. The cost was very high and we decided it was something we needed to pursue. We are thrilled to be where we are right now. … It is not something you take lightly at all on several different levels. Those are very hard decisions but that is why you get paid to make them.
“When you have a player who has been described as a unicorn — a player in his prime who is only going to get better — and add him to this group with a lot of exciting players, it was something we had to pursue.”
Aside from Tkachuk, Zito was not able to do much this season due to the team’s salary cap concerns as well as the lack of high-end draft stock — most of which was traded away at the deadline last year to bring in Claude Giroux and Ben Chiarot.
Weeks before the Panthers knew Tkachuk would become available, the Panthers made a couple of small signings when the free agency market opened — bringing in Nick Cousins, Colin White and Marc Staal.
Eric Staal was offered a pro tryout with the understanding once some cap space opened up, he would be signed to a one-year deal. That happed a couple of weeks into the season when Ekblad went on long-term injured reserve with a groin injury.
The Panthers did go through some rough patches and plenty of inconsistency during the regular season and were outside of a playoff spot when this trade deadline rolled around.
Zito and Maurice talked about the team going through some growing pains as things got worked out — and they eventually did with the results still playing out in Sunrise.
“The conversation we had in June about what the team was going to go through this year is exact,’’ Maurice said. “With Duclair and Hornqvist out of the lineup and seven other players missing, it was going to look different and people wouldn’t understand that. There had to be a shift in style and people probably wouldn’t understand that. There was going to be some difficulty in that time.”
While Florida was handcuffed to add pieces at the deadline — Zito compared it to “shopping at Bal Harbour with empty pockets — it could have sold off pending free agents such as Radko Gudas or the Staal brothers.
Zito decided against it.
“We have spent a lot of time and a lot of effort trying to get our culture moving forward in the right direction,’’Zito said at the time.
”We did not want to quit on the group. We are in a tenuous situation, no doubt. But the room believes and I believe in the room. We’re not going to quit on the team, we’re not going to quit on the fans who believe in us.
“If there was a deal to be made to help our team — short term, long term — we would have done it. We evaluated each one and we’re OK holding.”
Maurice said keeping the team together, showing management’s belief in them, was key to them finally finding their way.
The organization put their trust in the team they built and it was repaid.
No one could have honesty and realistically expected this, however.
”At the end of January, the players did some important things to keep this team together,” Maurice said. “Fighting through gave everyone hope that the heart was here, that we had the guys here and we wouldn’t be subtracting. At the same time, we were going to learn so much about our group just leaving it as it was.”
Jim Nill of the Dallas Stars and Don Sweeney of the Bruins are the other two finalists.
Unlike other awards which are voted on before the playoffs start, this one is conducted after the second round among NHL general managers and a panel of league executives, print and broadcast media.
The winner will be announced during the first round of the draft in Nashville on June 28.
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
CAROLINA HURRICANES (MET1) AT PANTHERS (WC2)
GAME 4 (Panthers Lead 3-0)
- When: Wednesday, 8 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV: TNT
- Radio: WQAM 560-AM, WPOW 95.6 FM2, WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Series Schedule — Game 1: Florida 3, @Carolina 2; Game 2: Florida 2, @Carolina 1 (OT); Game 3: @Florida 1, Carolina 0;Game 4: Wednesday at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 5*: Friday at Carolina, 8 (TNT); Game 6*: Sunday, May 28 at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 7*: Tuesday, May 30 at Carolina, 8 (TNT). *If Necessary
- Season Series: (Carolina won 2-1): @Florida 3, Carolina 0 (Nov.9);@Carolina 4, Florida 0 (Dec. 30); Carolina 6, @Florida 4 (April 13)
- All-Time Regular Season Series: Carolina/Hartford leads 71-46-10, 11 ties
- Postseason History: First Meeting
- How They Got Here — Carolina: d. New York Islanders in 6; d. New Jersey Devils in 5. Florida: d. Boston Bruins in 7; d. Toronto Maple Leafs in 5.