This may have been the first NHL Trade Deadline as general manager of the Florida Panthers, but as they say in Davie, it was not his first rodeo.
For the previous seven years, Zito worked closely with Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen and has seen the highs and lows of what a trade deadline can do to a team.
When you are a buyer, like Zito and the Panthers were, you don’t want to be the team that pays too much early.
You definitely don’t want to be holding the bag when it’s done.
Zito had his targets as the deadline approached and he worked a number of deals in the days leading up to it.
By Monday at 3, Zito had brought in a number of new players, said goodbye to some others, and cleared some cap space which will come in handy down the road.
Florida now has 14 games left in this regular season and are still chasing Carolina and Tampa Bay for the Central Division crown.
The Panthers did not really subtract anything, although Riley Stillman had seen his playing time increase, but added pieces they think can help in the coming weeks that they hope turns into months.
“We had to focus on our team and do the things we need to do, to do our thing,” Zito said Monday evening.
“We weren’t reactionary. We had a plan, wanted to address our needs. If we could, we would and wanted to do it prudently.”
Here is what we have heard about what the Panthers were thinking as the deadline came and went:
CLEARING THE DECK
When Zito traded Brett Connolly, Riley Stillman and Henrik Borgstrom to the Blackhawks, the initial thought was Zito was clearing out cap space to make a run at some high-profile players.
While the Panthers had interest in Buffalo forward Taylor Hall ($8 million cap hit) and defenseman David Savard ($4.75m), the cost — either financial or what it would cost in future assets — had Zito move his attention elsewhere.
At the end of Monday, Zito did end up clearing a $3.5 million cap hit for the next two seasons in what Connolly would be due.
Although Zito probably could have traded Connolly in the offseason, he had a deal now and took it.
As other teams look to shed money with a flat cap come the summer, Zito already took care of one of his problems.
The cost was a young defenseman in Stillman as well as 2016 first-round pick Borgstrom. That cost may become more expensive in the summer.
The Panthers did get back Lucas Wallmark who was one of the cornerpieces of the Vincent Trocheck deal last year. Lucas Carlsson is a depth defenseman who could find some playing time as well.
Florida will go into the next offseason with Jason Demers’ retained money finally gone and will only have $2.3 million shaved off the cap due to Scott Darling’s buyout and Roberto Luongo’s early retirement hit.
Per PuckPedia.com, the Panthers have $34.6 million committed to contracts next season with a few holes to fill (backup goalie for one) and some business (RFAs, etc.) to take care of.
Florida would also like to get Sasha Barkov extended sooner rather than later. That $3.5 million in 2022-23 is a start.
LOW RISK, HIGH REWARD
The most intriguing newcomer to the Panthers is forward Nikita Gusev, a highly-touted player coming out of the KHL who ended up not doing a whole lot in New Jersey.
After a pedestrian first season with the Devils, Gusev only had two goals in this one as he found himself passed up on the depth chart and eventually a frequent scratch.
Gusev was cut loose by the Devils in a mutually-agreed upon deal; he figured someone would sign him.
Florida jumped at the chance.
The Panthers are only paying him $250,000 for the remainder of this season and then we’ll see what happens.
Gusev is fond of South Florida (he has a place near the beach) and should be highly motivated to make this work with the Panthers.
Joel Quenneville has already said he’s going to give him a chance to play with the big boys in the lineup when Gusev joins the Panthers Thursday in Tampa Bay.
Gusev knows captain Sasha Barkov and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky already and may find an immediate home on the top power play unit where Florida has struggled lately.
As is the case with most of the guys Zito brings in, Gusev has a lot to prove.
When you talk about ‘change of scenery,’ going from Newark to South Florida ain’t a bad one.
And, getting the chance to play on a line with Barkov or Jonathan Huberdeau should give him some chances to show off his scoring.
With Anthony Duclair back Tuesday, the Panthers’ may get back to looking like they did a few weeks ago when it comes to scoring.
DRIEDGER WAS STAYING
Those who follow trade deadline day on social media lit up when Quenneville said Chris Driedger would be starting Tuesday in Dallas.
“He’s officially off the market,” one quipped.
Truth is, he never really was on the market.
Sure, if a team came back and offered something the Panthers simply could not refuse, they may have taken it.
But Driedger did not want to leave and the Panthers didn’t want him to go, either.
He will soon enough. Just not now.
Driedger has been terrific for the Panthers over the past two seasons and he has become a key part of this team despite Bobrovsky holding down the starter’s net.
With these two, the Panthers go into the postseason with a pretty solid 1-2 in goal.
If the NHL crams in playoff games as it did in the bubble with back-to-back elimination games for instance, Florida will have not one, but two, starting goalies ready for the challenge.
We have called Driedger an insurance policy for the Panthers in case Bobrovsky gets hurt, but truthfully, he is more important to the team than that.
MONTOUR STEPS IN
The Panthers know they can’t replace the injured Aaron Ekblad because elite defensemen like that just aren’t readily available.
Florida was not getting that type of player even if it did sign Savard; Montour isn’t Ekblad either, but he brings some offense and seems ready to jump into a postseason race.
The Panthers gave up a third round pick to the Sabres for a defenseman who may or may not be a rental. We’ll see where this goes as well.
As is the case with Gusev, Montour could find some time on the power play as Quenneville & Co. try to find jump some life into their special teams.
Moutour is not the best defensive defenseman in the NHL, but he’s not bad, either. Put him with Radko Gudas or MacKenzie Weegar and he’ll be fine.
He also doesn’t turn the puck over a lot so he’ll score and won’t hurt you in the backend, either.
Sam Bennett was the last player Zito added to the team and Florida hopes he gives some hard-edged play to their bottom six and continues to excel in the postseason.
Bennett did not have the career anyone in Calgary hoped for when they took him fourth overall in 2014 but he’ll have no such expectations here.
In fact, Bennett’s style of play may endure him to the Florida fan who don’t care where Calgary drafted him.
He’s another guy who has a little something to prove and Florida’s going to give him a chance to do it right here.
The Panthers did give up the equivalent of two second round picks for Bennett, which many have pointed out is a better return for Calgary than Buffalo got for Hall.
True. But Hall is a rental and has to play in the top-6 to be effective. Bennett is RFA and, if Florida likes him, it can keep him (or protect him from Seattle, at least).
He can also slide up and down the lineup, play numerous positions and bring a spark at any given moment.
Zito’s first moves when he took over for Dale Tallon was to help turn the Panthers into a tougher team to play as he brought in Patric Hornqvist and Gudas.
His last move before his first deadline ended went in the same direction.
Bennett’s 79 hits this season rank third on the Panthers behind Gudas and Weegar.
Zito said Bennett would likely stay at wing although he has played a lot of center in the past. He does give Quenneville more options and, hey, those are never bad.
ON DECK: PANTHERS AT STARS
When: Tuesday, 8:30
Season series: Florida leads 4-2
TV: BSFLA Alternate (Marlins conflict); Fox Sports Go streaming
Radio: WQAM 560