It did not take long for Bill Zito to put his stamp on the Florida Panthers.
After years of being a candidate for general manager positions around the league, Zito was one of more than 20 to interview with the Panthers via Zoom before he was brought in for some mask-to-mask meetings with the team’s ownership and hierarchy.
Upon getting the job, Zito got right to work putting together his front office staff and going over the Florida roster piece by piece.
With rare exception, every move Zito has made in his first year as the general manager of the Panthers has worked.
The Panthers, which clinched second in the Central Division and home ice in the opening round of the playoffs, were not transformed overnight. It only feels like it.
When Florida takes the ice against the Lightning in the postseason, the expected 20-man lineup will have 10 players who were not with the Panthers organization last summer when they were bounced out of the Toronto bubble.
This is not an all-new team but the turnover has been impressive.
“I’m going to give Bill all the credit for doing what he had to do,” said coach Joel Quenneville, who will be a finalist for the league’s coach of the year award.
“He kept me informed every step of the way. We had some input, but at the end of the day, Bill was the guy pulling the trigger and doing the work and figuring it out.
“But he gets the credit for these acquisitions that have been outstanding. It has been a good first year for him. He has done a lot of great things.”
MAKING LOTS OF MOVES
The Panthers, everyone around the league surmised, had the talent to succeed.
Yet something was missing.
Toughness, being a hard team to play against, was one thing the Panthers glaringly lacked.
If that was the missing ingredient, Zito went after it to find out.
There was talk the Panthers might be looking to unload some of their talent, but Zito instead built around the core of Sasha Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad and Sergei Bobrovsky.
“When we came here, there were some pretty good players here,” Zito told Florida Hockey Now on Monday morning.
“Realistically, it’s not crazy to think we would play pretty well with good players and a really good coach. You would bristle a little bit in the preseason when a lot of people — the so-called experts — counted us out. People didn’t have a lot of time for the Panthers.
“But I thought we could have a successful season because we had quality people here. I don’t think the people in our room are surprised at all with what has happened. They have done their jobs. People don’t give them a lot of respect which is deserved. I am really proud of those guys.”
Patric Hornqvist was the first player brought in.
Not only did Zito bring in a tough NHL power forward with championship pedigree, but he was also able to rid his team of a contract (Mike Matheson) few thought was tradable.
In free agency, Zito’s first official signing was Radko Gudas — a defenseman with a bad reputation for past dirty play.
An aging power forward with a no-trade deal in Pittsburgh,
It was apparent Zito was looking for value in free agency but that did not mean he was value shopping.
The Panthers let Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov and Erik Haula go during free agency with Zito figuring he could get similar production from younger, cheaper players.
Carter Verhaeghe, who was locked out of playing time by a cash-strapped Tampa Bay team, was signed to a two-year, $2 million deal. He had 18 goals in 43 games.
Alex Wennberg, bought out in Columbus, was also added on a discount deal. Wennberg set a career-high with his 17th goal in Monday’s 4-0 win over the Lightning.
Anthony Duclair, a 23-goal scorer in Ottawa the year before, was on the market for a month before signing with the Panthers. He has 10 goals and is a key component to the top line.
Ryan Lomberg and Vinnie Hinostroza were added as bottom-6 depth players.
Markus Nutivaara was acquired on the cheap from Zito’s former team in Columbus while Gus Forsling and Noah Juulsen were pulled off the waiver wire in training camp.
Forsling is now teaming with MacKenzie Weegar on Florida’s top pair after Ekblad got hurt.
At the trade deadline, the Panthers sent one player who wasn’t doing much (Hinostroza) to his hometown Blackhawks.
It was Zito doing the player a favor. He wasn’t playing here, perhaps he would there.
That worked out, too.
Hinostroza had no points in nine games with the Panthers; he had three goals and 10 points in 16 games with Chicago.
Zito also added to the team at the deadline, getting defenseman Brandon Montour and center Sam Bennett as well as a no-risk signing in Nikita Gusev.
In looking toward the future, the Panthers landed the collegiate free agent defenseman Matt Kiersted; Zito also sent Brett Connolly’s salary to Chicago along with promising defenseman Riley Stillman for Lucas Wallmark and Lucas Carlsson.
It would be hard to imagine the Panthers being where they are now without these additions.
With rare exception, all of the players Zito brought in have been integral parts of the Panthers’ success this season. The players who have not added much did not cost much, either, and could still contribute down the road.
Four of Florida’s top seven scorers are new to the team this season. Four of Florida’s top six defensemen — including three on their top two pairings — weren’t here a year ago.
Those are impactful additions.
AWARD SEASON IN SOUTH FLORIDA
The Panthers are expected to have a number of finalists for award winners once the ballots are added up once the season is over.
Barkov is in the running for the Selke, perhaps the Hart Trophy as league MVP as well. Quenneville will be a finalist for coach of the year. More on those this week.
The Jim Gregory General Manager of the Year Award has been handed out since 2010 and is voted on by the league’s GMs and a panel of five NHL executives and five media members.
If one had to bet that the Panthers would have only one award winner, it would be Zito winning this one.
And, if Zito does win the award, one person he may thank is predecessor Dale Tallon.
For the past decade, Tallon helped build the Panthers organization from a depressed commodity to one that challenged for the playoffs.
Without Tallon drafting the likes of Barkov, Huberdeau and Ekblad, the Panthers may not have had the foundation to build upon.
“When you ask about if we thought this team would be this good, a lot of that goes back to the work Dale did,” Zito said.
“A lot of these players, Dale went and got. You can’t understate what that man did. As Doug Armstrong used to say, ‘I’m just building the foundation for the next GM.’
“In this case, I am happy to take the accolades but Dale Tallon deserves a lot of credit.”
A complete Q&A with Florida Panthers GM Bill Zito will be published at Florida Hockey Now on Thursday.