The past two NHL drafts were held virtually with Florida Panthers general manager Bill Zito working out of a makeshift command center at his team’s arena in 2020 and from the Fort Lauderdale Yacht Club last summer.
This year, Zito — and the rest of his contemporaries — will be back in the familiar environs of a bustling draft floor.
The 2022 NHL Draft kicks off tonight at the Bell Center in Montreal with team personnel and prospective players (with their families) in the house for the first time since 2019 in Vancouver.
Zito has attended numerous drafts first as an agent and then worked the floor as an executive with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
But this will be his first in-person draft as GM of his own team.
And he goes into it a little empty handed.
That does not mean Zito will not be busy. Far from it.
With the Panthers up against the salary cap and a long list of things they want to accomplish, Zito could be in the middle of what should be a very active trade session in Montreal.
He just does not have a lot of draft capital to work with.
Which could make things interesting.
The Panthers enter this draft with a total of six picks (as of the time this was published) but none before the third round.
If things stay that way, Florida will not be making a draft pick until sometime Friday afternoon.
The draft opens Thursday at 7 p.m. (ESPN).
“Our prep has been the same,” Zito said on Wednesday afternoon from Montreal. “I really commend our staff for doing a wonderful job of staying focused. You never know what can happen. No one knows what can happen in the next 24 hours so they have been preparing as if we have a plethora of picks.
“They’re prepared to make a selection at any time. They have been diligent in their work and they are ready.”
Zito has already spent a good share of his draft stock in making deals to improve his team — from sending this year’s first-round pick to Buffalo last summer in exchange for Sam Reinhart as well as sending two second-round selections to Calgary for Sam Bennett.
Florida’s 2023 first-round pick went to Montreal for Ben Chiarot; the 2024 selection belongs to Philadelphia as part of the Claude Giroux deal.
The Panthers went all-in on this past season’s team in an attempt for a deep playoff run.
Florida did win a postseason series for the first time since 1996, but still got knocked out in a second-round sweep by the Lightning.
It was a gamble worth making, things just did not work out.
Now, there will be changes to the Florida roster.
One player who may end up being moved this week is forward Patric Hornqvist.
Florida simply cannot afford a $5.3 million cap hit for a fourth-line forward despite all the great things he brings to the team.
Zito, of course, says he is looking into all kinds of deals but — of course — did not get into any details.
”I would consider any trade at any time,” he said. “It would be incumbent on me, on behalf of the organization, if someone called for me to consider. We’re always aggressively looking to improve our roster and improve our position with regard to where we sit in the league — both from personnel and from (salary) cap.”
As far as the draft goes, Zito had praise for his amateur scouting staff for the work they have put in despite the team not having a first or second-round pick.
When Zito first made the trades, he pointed out he did not take trading big ticket items lightly but did so to make a deal in hopes of improving his team.
Florida has done a nice job of finding players in the lower rounds in the past few years and will need to again in hopes of keeping their prospect pool full.
Look for the Panthers to take some risks and go for players with upside and character.
The Panthers, at least lately, have not been afraid to take risks when it comes to finding players.
“Our outlook has not changed when it comes to ‘best player available’ and if the projection is a player may need a little longer to develop, well, that’s OK,” Zito said. “We do have a lot of depth and our core is relatively young.
“We feel pretty strongly that our core and our group is going to be together for a while and we will be able to sustain the progress and allow the right player to continue to develop the right way, on the schedule prudent to the individual. Our scouts are empowered to make the best selection, the right selection.”
As far as getting players back in the fold — free agents Mason Marchment and Claude Giroux are believed to be priorities with Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar due extensions — Zito says he remains in contact will all relevant parties.
“All the agents are here as well and we continue to have meetings with all the players via their agents,” Zito said. “We’re trying to get all of our guys signed and then in free agency, we will try and fill holes where we have them if and when we do have them. We’re bullish on the future.”
2022 NHL DRAFT
Bell Center, Montreal
First Round: 7 p.m. (ESPN, ESPN+, WQAM-560)
Rounds 2-7: 11 a.m. (NHL Network, ESPN+)
FLORIDA PANTHERS SELECTIONS
First Round: Traded to Buffalo (Sam Reinhart)
Second Round: Traded to Calgary (Sam Bennett) — Now belongs to Seattle
Third Round: No. 93
Fourth Round: No. 125
Fifth Round: No. 157
Sixth Round: No. 186 (From Columbus); No. 189
Seventh Round: No. 221