Bill Zito’s first NHL draft as general manager of the Florida Panthers was odd indeed.
Not only was it held remotely due to the pandemic, but it was held just over a month after Zito left the Columbus Blue Jackets to join the Panthers.
To this day, Zito still has yet to personally meet the players he drafted in 2020.
Sure, he has had plenty of phone calls and Zoom meetings, but when he and Anton Lundell come face-to-face in the coming months, it will be for the first time since Florida made him the 12th overall pick last October.
Friday, Zito and his new front office jump into another draft and, at least on the surface, should feel a little more secure about things.
“Last year was a crazy time,” Zito said on Thursday afternoon. “I didn’t know most of the people here. We were trying to cobble a list together, meet everyone. Just get situated. Now, it’s a well-oiled machine here at this point. I feel confident where the process is now. It is where we need it to be for us to do the best job we can.”
Although there has not been nearly as much in-person scouting as in years past due to entire leagues shutting down last season, Zito and his crew — which includes new director of amateur scouting Shane Churla as well as head European scout Jari Kekalainen — have spent the year scouring video and speaking with coaches and players as they prepare for this year’s entry draft.
Zito’s “war room” will also be a little different.
Last year, the Panthers set up shop in the BB&T Center with limited amount of employees allowed into the building.
On Friday night, Zito & Co. will be headquartered at the Fort Lauderdale Yacht Club, a site sure to draw some comments from the national commentators broadcasting the draft on ESPN in the United States and SportsNet in Canada.
Zito’s background when he makes Florida’s first round selection — the Panthers hold the 24th pick (which is actually No. 23 due to Arizona losing its pick) — will have a definite South Florida feel to it.
“We’re all very excited about it,” Zito said. “It’s really neat and we’re thrilled to be able to show the rest of the league — and the world — what a wonderful place it is to call home. I think it’s really cool.”
The Panthers will return to their arena headquarters Saturday for the second day of the draft which will include the second-seventh rounds.
Florida goes into Friday holding six picks in the 2021 draft, missing a third-round pick after sending it to Buffalo in the Brandon Montour deal.
Due to the Panthers success this season, they are not drafting as high up as usual — and that’s just fine with Zito.
The Panthers definitely could get used to drafting in the bottom third of the NHL. That means their previous season was a success.
Friday’s draft spot is the lowest primary slot in franchise history.
The previous highest pick Florida had (not counting No. 25 in 2010 which came from a trade) has been No. 23.
Florida took Henrik Borgstrom in that slot in 2016 and Mike Matheson there in 2012.
In Florida’s previous four drafts, they have picked between 10 and 15.
With so many picks in front of them, the Panthers don’t really have a good idea who may be available to them — but with a big list, they can be prepared. And, if a player Florida really liked drops as the draft goes on, the team could always move up via trade.
The Panthers have cast a wide net when it comes to who they could select at No. 23 and will take the player they feel is the best fit for them when their name is called.
Will it be a forward or a defenseman? Depends on who is sitting there.
One thing is all but certain: The Panthers probably won’t spend their first-round pick on a goalie, not with their organization brimming with solid goalie prospects.
In 2019, the Panthers took Spencer Knight with the 13th overall pick. He has already made a name for himself in Florida and should be on the team after a strong showing in the final month of the 2021 season.
“I had the good fortune of being schooled the art of the draft by Jarmo Kekalainen,” Zito said. “He is a very astute drafter if that’s even a world. Having Paul Fenton and Rick Dudley on our staff and having Shane run everything. When Shane came in, we had so many of the same ideas on how the draft should be run. Best player available with a theme of organizational need in tandem with the best player available.
“At some point, you have to restock goalies. Centers and defensemen are harder to get than wings. There is some strategy associated with it, but by and large, (we’re going to take) the best player.”
2021 NHL Draft
Round 1: Friday, 8 p.m. (ESPN2/WQAM-560)
Rounds 2-7: Saturday, 11 a.m. (NHL Network/WQAM-560)
FLORIDA PANTHERS SELECTIONS
Round 1: No. 24
Round 2: No. 56
Round 4: No. 120
Round 5: No. 152
Round 6: No. 184
Round 7: No. 210