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Bill Zito: Florida players are “proud to be Panthers”

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Bill Zito at his introductory press conference as the new general manager of the Florida Panthers in September. // Photo courtesy of @FlaPanthers

Florida Panthers general manager Bill Zito embarks on his second season on the job in Sunrise with seemingly less work to do than he did when he first got here in September.

One of his first projects upon taking over was trying to fix the ongoing problem of the team’s culture.

Based on what we saw during the 2021 season, the Panthers took giant steps in rectifying that — and a number of players Zito brought in helped.

Things most definitely changed around the Panthers over the course of the past season.

And that cannot be overstated.

“I think that the players are proud to be Panthers,’’ Zito said in his long-ranging season-ending Q&A with the South Florida media on Wednesday.

“And if that’s a measuring stick, then I think we’ve made some progress. I’ll leave it at that.”

But after the Panthers ended one of their best seasons in franchise history with a 4-2 series loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs last week, Zito goes into the offseason knowing the job is far from done.

This offseason is just as important as the last.

Perhaps even more so.

The Panthers took a big step forward in 2021 — and now the expectation is for them to continue their upward progression not only as a team on the ice but as a franchise off of it.

Zito spoke to the media apparently just moments after wrapping up his player exit meetings with Mason Marchment.

This offseason brings the challenges of not only decisions to be made on which free agents — restricted and unrestricted — to keep with a flat salary cap but to which players the Panthers will leave available for the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft.

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Florida has some contracts it would like to move although that will not come easy, especially with teams strapped for salary cap space.

The Panthers also need to hammer out a new long-term contract extension with captain Sasha Barkov. Nothing can be signed until the end of July when the NHL’s new year begins.

Zito came to the Panthers and offered a fresh set of eyes on what ailed the franchise. He was not beholden to players he did not bring in nor to moves made by his predecessor.

Things are a little different this year.

For the most part, these are Zito’s guys. Perhaps he did not bring all of them in, but he spent the year with each of them in very close quarters and there is certainly a relationship with all of them.

The Panthers had a very good season in 2021, but ultimately, it was not good enough.

This team was good enough to still be playing right now and, perhaps if the playoff circumstances were different, they would be.

Bill Zito Q&A: Panthers GM talks first season, Barkov and more

Zito will be the first to tell you his job is far from being done.

Here is what Zito said in his meeting with the media on Wednesday:

How do you think the additions of players like Patric Hornqvist and Radko Gudas helped change the culture around the Panthers?

I think it was self-evident, you saw their contribution right away in the first 10 games. The way they compete on the ice, the emotion they brought. Not only the overt expression of emotion that they brought but in the way they play and the way they handle themselves.

If you watch them on the bench, their interaction with the guys. Of course I’m fortunate enough to see them behind the scenes. There was an incident in practice that I had referenced earlier in the season about Hornqvist pulling the guys back on the ice when they were leaving to do some reps on the power play.

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But there’s a lot also behind the scenes. Their empathy for their teammates, the communication with their teammates, the way they prepare themselves, arrive early and leave late and all those little things that go into it. So yeah, their impact was immediate and significant.

Do you think Spencer Knight could be the No. 1 goalie here next season?

ActualIy I just texted him this morning.

Roberto Luongo is the general manager for Team Canada at the World Championships and I never thought I would wish Canada good luck being a good red, white and blue USA boy. But when he gets back, we’ll sit down with the goaltending department and we’ll go through everything. We’ll talk with Coach Q and Robbie Tallas and decide on our strategy for the goaltending for next year.

I thought Spencer did a great job. And I thought there was a lot of highlights to Bob’s season as well. I think there were areas that he would like to improve upon but he had some bright spots too.

And also, Chris … I don’t know exactly, I can’t sit here and tell you specifically what the future is going to hold. But we’re going to review everything thoroughly and make some decisions.

How much closer do you think the team is today than it was when you first got here?

Well, we need 16 wins and we got two. I don’t think it’s 1/8th.

I think we made great strides. I just finished my last player interview like a minute before I came in here.

I can tell you that to a man, the players before they talked about themselves, honestly, every single player … When you have these player exit meetings at the end of the year, usually it’s ‘So tell me about your season,’ and the player will talk about himself and then you’ll talk about the player and the things that went well and things they need to work on. And then we will ask them ‘Well, what can we do better as an organization?’ It’s a debrief.

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To a man, every single guy started out with ‘I have a bad taste in my mouth’ or, those are my words there was some version of they were dissatisfied with how the season ended and felt that we could do more and we’re excited to get back for next season.

That collective dissatisfaction with where we are actually makes me feel very very good about where we are as a team and where we are as an organization at this point. It’s not good enough. I don’t expect anyone to accept it as good enough, but it’s where we are and it’s a start.

Have you started talking with Sasha Barkov and his agent on a new contract extension?

Well last week was kind of an organizational week and I literally, as I just referenced, finished my last player interview a minute ago. I’m going to reach out to the agents and start those processes in short order. It’ll be something that’s paramount to me and we’ll address it in short order. I’ll start talking to Todd Diamond his agent.

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What kind of strides do you think the team made in changing the culture?

I’m trying to give you an accurate answer and not just throw wordspeak at you. It would be self-serving and easy to say ‘Oh, we made significant strides, we made the playoffs, we had a great series against Tampa’ and all those things happened. To me, it wasn’t good enough; we didn’t win. And we are measured by our results on the ice.

So I’m not content. I think everybody is pleased that the effort and the focus from the players is trending in the right direction. We all need to get better and it starts with me.

Every one of us can be better, can work harder, can be more focused, can pay better attention to detail,  can do the little things better, be better teammates be better managers. And we have to make our day-to-day work habits better and just look every day to improve. And we’re all doing it, we’re all trying it.

I think that the players are proud to be Panthers. And if that’s a measuring stick, then I think we’ve made some progress. And I’ll leave it at that.

How is Aaron Ekblad doing in his rehab and how big of a loss did he turn out to be?

He’s making some pretty significant progress. I saw him yesterday and he was walking. Yeah, he was a pretty significant guy to lose. Pretty good hockey player. Other guys had to step up and they certainly rose to the occasion. But that’s a difficult player to replace in your lineup for any number of reasons. In addition to his on-ice contribution, off-ice he’s a leader. He’s a glue guy. His presence was missed.

Back to Spencer Knight; you can’t speak for Joel Quenneville, but could there be an open competition between him and Sergei Bobrovsky for the No. 1 spot in training camp?

I think I can speak for Q. The one thing that we’ve been trying to work towards is that the best players play. And so, at any given night, Q is going to dress the lineup. He said this time and again, he is trying to win hockey games. There are a lot of factors that go into many things but, yeah, we’re going to get with the goaltending department and we’ll figure it out.

Last year you came in with fresh eyes from outside the organization but do you think know that you know everyone so well that can be an advantage this offseason as well?

I mean, now my eyes are bloodshot. No, of course, yeah. Now I have a greater familiarity with the players, I know them as people. You get to learn so much more when you see players inside now. There’s a theme in the scouting community when you watch your own team: You can’t scout the other team. The inverse of that is, as you’re watching your own team you really become so much more comfortable and learn … we were learning all season about our players and then the playoffs takes it to another level.

That’s going to be so helpful for me and for the whole staff as we continue to try to get the pieces, the right pieces, together for the collective to move forward and to make sure that we have a team. Maybe not just the 20 best players but the 20 best parts to be the best team. So absolutely, that’s invaluable.

Last year you did a lot of ‘heavy lifting’ in changing up the roster as much as you did. But this offseason doesn’t look like a walk in the park either does it?

I don’t know. I hope it will be. But all the teams are faced with their own individual set of of hurdles every summer. John Davidson always used to say in Columbus ‘curveballs, curveballs!’ You never know what’s around the corner. Isn’t that always the case?

There’s always going to be something that presents itself and there’s always a trade that’s around the corner that you hadn’t anticipated. ‘Wow, that guy’s available? Who knew? Well, let’s get in on that.’  Or all the myriad of opportunities that you could stumble upon in the course of your interactions. The guys who might not get qualified who might become available. ‘Oh, that’s a nice fit.’

So there’s all kinds of things that can happen.  We’ve, of course, known for some time who the free agents are going to be so we’ve done our preparation on that. And of course we’ve known about the Expansion Draft for some time, and that’s been the topic of discussion for months and months. I think Braden Birch is a little mock-drafted out, we’ve done it so many times, the poor guy.

But we’re prepared. The schedule is a little compacted this summer, but we’re actually looking forward to it to continuing to grow and getting better.

How do you feel about your cap situation going into this offseason?

It’s not like we really have a choice. The cap is flat so we have to deal with it. So does everybody else. It’s a level playing field, so we’ll play.

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Is it a no-brainer that you would protect 7-3-1 in the expansion draft vs. 4-4-1?

It’s not a tough decision for me.

Can the Panthers grow from the experience of losing a hard-fought first-round series to the Lightning?

I do. I talked to Patric Hornqvist at length and it was something that he said, ‘those are lessons that we have to learn. Those are some of the mistakes that we made, some of the little errors, maybe not even game-changing errors but processes that we have to go through in order to learn how to win.’

In order to learn how to be champions — and you know the Tampa Bay team are champs and there’s a reason. There’s a reason they don’t make those little errors.

To be honest, there’s a little part of me that before you go to bed and you look in the mirror when no one’s around, I wonder is it a self-serving way to look at it? Is it, ‘Jeez, we were right there.’

You try to find the silver lining in the cloud. We do have to find that silver lining. And I do think that it’s going to make us better. I can point to the reaction that I saw from our players as evidence of that, so that I’m not just making it up. That was sincere, sincere emotional regret from our guys and real anticipation of next season already in the discussions that I’ve had with our players. It was pretty invigorating, actually.

What do you think was your most rewarding moment as GM of the Panthers so far, as well as the most disappointing?

The most difficult moment was when the season ended. No question. I think that’s probably going to be for every season. That didn’t sit with me very well.

The most rewarding part, boy that’s a tough one. There have been so many. I don’t know. There’s a few, I just had a really nice one a few minutes ago. My last interview was Mason Marchment. In training camp, he came in, and I pulled him in and it may have been the day before even.

I told him, ‘Listen, you should plan on and focus on making this team. I saw you play last year when I was in Columbus and we tried to get you. You were with the Marlies’ and I told him about the game, because it was played at the Air Canada Center. I was there with Gregory Campbell and we were pro scouting for Columbus. I told him ‘I think you’re a really good player’ and we just had kind of a little interaction. ‘You come in ready to make this team.’ He brought that up. That was a neat little thing. I don’t know, there’s just been so many, so many of those little moments that happened that are kind of fun. That’s probably not the biggest one, but it just happened so it came to mind. It was nice.

I really can’t point to one. Just being here is a privilege and we’re all so fortunate to be able to do this every day. It’s a blessing and it’s not lost on me, I’ll tell you that. I know I don’t sound like I’m doing cartwheels right now but the appreciation that we’re able to do this, especially in these times, it’s significant. I really am appreciative to be able to be here at all. So, maybe every day is the blessing or the feel-good moment for all for us.

Is there a plan for Anton Lundell to be here for training camp?

Who? That was a joke. Yeah, he’ll be here. There’s a plan. I’m going to go get him myself. If you guys don’t know, he’s tearing up the World Championships. He’s a pretty good prospect.

You have Sergei Bobrovsky on his big contract and a rookie goalie in Spencer Knight who looks ready. Is that a good problem to have in goal?

I don’t even characterize it. We need to approach each season from a fresh perspective. And we’re going to do that. We’ll get with the goaltending department and we’ll evaluate. We’ll do everything in our power, as we do with all the players, to help each of our players individually and collectively be as good as they can be. And I think they will be.

Could you look at the season and characterize it simply as a success with a bad draw in the playoffs?

I thought the season overall was a success. I think someone asked before ‘Did you think you guys would get out to such a hot start?’ We didn’t know. I think, in fairness, we had pretty good players when I got here. And I’ve said this before, kudos to Dale Tallon. I mean, when I showed up there is a Sasha Barkov and Huby and Eky and even some of the role players who are here and stepped up into our lineup to help. Hepo, pretty good players. We had the foundation to start. We had Coach Q. So, there was every reason to believe that if we could add a little bit here and there, we might be alright.

So, with that said, it was nice to go through a season where I think we lost two in a row once or twice? So you get on a roll and then you have a hiccup and then you get back and win again. It was a really enjoyable season. To have that success, even to grab second place in the division and finish toward the top of the league, it was rewarding.

It was really rewarding because the guys embraced it and the guys in the room were a proud bunch who cared. They were galvanized as a team. I was really proud of them.

As you know, we just moved into the community but to interact with and to see the fans and see on social media and some of the Zoom calls and stuff that we had.

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I didn’t really get to interact that much with any of the fans because of the bubble, but you could tell and from what you heard and read, I think it meant a lot to them that the guys cared so much and that we were making some progress. So from that perspective, it was a lot of fun actually.

With regard to the first round, I mean I can’t speak for who our other opponent might have been, obviously, we played the champs, and they’re  a great team. They’re talented, they have a great coach. They were prepared, experienced and it didn’t go our way. We have to learn from it and be prepared next time. And we will be.

Last year was pretty unique with the Covid-19 protocols and everything you had to go through. Do you think going through all that together helped the team bond closer?

It certainly could probably go either way. But I think in our case, being in South Florida helped us quite a bit. When the players did go home, you could be outdoors. You could go for a walk, you could enjoy yourself in perhaps a more relaxed atmosphere away from the rink than maybe in some of the other cities, certainly early on and in January.

I imagine it was a little easier here than perhaps Toronto or Ottawa or in some of the colder climates. And that might have helped us, might have helped everyone’s mental and emotional state.

But it was, from a team bonding and building standpoint, great. Everybody’s humanity came out. Players were really patient. I can’t recall any complaining about some of the restrictions that were placed on us; the nasal test every single day you had a Q-Tip up your nose. Nor should there be complaining given the scope of the world that we live in. But there wasn’t, there was no nothing. I can’t remember any whining or complaining and everybody kind of bonded together to help and it was nice. It brought us together. And the good came out, reaffirming in human nature.

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Jon Baldwin

George what is the timing of the expansion draft in relation to ability to re-sign/sign free agents? I was wondering because if we exposed Bob in the draft and Seattle took him (big if I know) we could then maybe sign Driedger. Probably just wishful thinking on my part.

Thomas Colavecchio

Great interview, George!! I love how open and responsive Mr. Z’s answers to the questions were. After many long and depressing years following the Cats, it’s nice to feel the real promise that exists for the future!!

Dale Huber

To Jon Baldwin, Bob has a No Move Clause (NMC) contract. The Panthers are required to protect any player with that type of contract. Bob would have to waive the NMC and that is not very likely. It is the same reason they will have to protect Yandle, which means you only have 2 other defensemen you can protect (Ekblad and Weegar). So most likely all the other D are at risk. Hope that helps.

Dale Huber

Sorry one more thing, Jon Baldwin, as to your timing question. The expansion draft happens prior to free agents being available to sign. So if somehow Bob waived his NMC, and Seattle took him, then we could sign Driedger before he hit the free agent market. The only way Seattle selects Bob is if we gave them an enticement (and it would need to be so big you would probably not like it).

Jon Baldwin

Thank you, that was very helpful!

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