When Bill Zito was faced with making some deals at the NHL Trade Deadline a few months back, the general manager of the Florida Panthers wanted to keep his team together.
It obviously paid off as the team made the playoffs by a point as the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference and on a magical run to the Stanley Cup Final.
“We did not want to quit on the group,’’ he said then. “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.”
Zito could not keep his band together this offseason.
Patric Hornqvist, a heart-and-soul piece of the Panthers, appears headed to retirement after suffering two concussions within a span of a couple of weeks.
Radko Gudas, yet another heart-and-soul piece, is off to the Anaheim Ducks after getting a cannot-say-no contract worth $12 million at the age of 33.
Alex Lyon helped carry the Panthers into the playoffs with his six-game winning streak at the end of the season but he got a two-year deal with Detroit and is headed to Michigan.
And, after all of those moves were made on Saturday afternoon, Zito traded Anthony Duclair to the San Jose Sharks in order to save $2 million on the salary cap.
Replacing them will not come easy — especially Gudas and Hornqvist, two of the first players Zito acquired upon taking over as Florida’s general manager in 2020.
Both players were part of a massive turnaround in South Florida as the team enjoyed three of its best seasons in their history with those two playing a big role.
“It goes beyond the physicality and the toughness,” Zito said on Saturday afternoon. “You all had the opportunity to interact with those two. They contribution they made — even with me, in making me better — they always wanted to help and were team-first. …
“The character of those guys as teammates, as people and as friends, I would hope and aspire to be like that someday.”
Now, this was not Zito playing the role of Dave Dombrowski who was ordered to sell off the 1997 World Series champion Marlins nor Bryan Murray dismantling the 1996 Eastern Conference champion Panthers.
Florida would have loved to have kept Gudas, for instance, and really did not want to deal Duclair.
But under a relatively flat salary camp — it’s up a paltry $1 million this year to $83.5 million — with a couple of high-profile injuries going into the coming season, Zito has to get creative to try and keep the Panthers in contention.
“Some of the players from last year moved on and it’s tough,’’ Zito said. “We have a (salary) cap, we have limited resources. Salaries go up. As someone who had been an agent for 20 years, that’s a good thing for people. It’s a positive. It’s bittersweet to say goodbye and to say thank you. … I’m happy for them. People move on and we’re most appreciative for what they did for us.”
By trading Duclair, he now has some flexibility to bring in something else in the coming days or weeks.
Remember, this offseason did not start and end on Saturday.
Last summer, he pulled off one of the biggest blockbuster deals in NHL history by trading Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar plus additional pieces to Calgary for Matthew Tkachuk on July 22.
Zito, you can bet, is not done yet.
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
- Now: Free agency open
- July 9-15 (approximately): Development camp, Coral Springs
- Mid-September: Training Camp, South Florida
- Sept. 25: Preseason starts, doubleheader v. Nashville @ Sunrise
- Oct. 7: Preseason ends, vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
- Mid-October: Start of 2023-24 Regular Season