When Florida Panthers general manager Bill Zito stepped to the podium inside a makeshift press conference room two days after his team’s season came to an abrupt end, he vowed not to make any rash changes.
“There are still jerseys in the dryer,’’ Zito said.
Zito stuck with that.
During the month that passed since the Panthers were eliminated from the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in a shocking sweep by the Lightning, Zito contemplated his team’s coaching situation.
Along with his front office, Zito did a deep dive on the Panthers’ season — as a whole, from Opening Night to Game 4 in Tampa.
He said throughout the season that he would evaluate Andrew Brunette when the season came to a close.
Zito stuck to that as well.
In the end, with a number of high-profile coaching candidates available, Zito felt it was best for the franchise — and the players he they have on the roster right now — to not only speak with a number of them, but ultimately decide to make a change behind the bench.
Paul Maurice, who resigned during his ninth season with the Winnipeg Jets in December saying his team “needed a new voice,’’ impressed Zito & Co. so much they felt it imperative he take over the Panthers.
Maurice was 28 when he got his first NHL head coaching job in Hartford, at the time making him the youngest coach in major North American professional sports.
That was in 1995 when the Whalers fired Paul Holmgren and promoted Maurice, who was in his first year as an NHL assistant coach.
Maurice coached the final 70 games of that season and ended up keeping the job — becoming the final coach in Whalers’ history as the franchise moved to Carolina in 1997.
When Maurice is officially introduced as the 17th coach in Florida Panthers history on Thursday morning, he does so with a wealth of experience as an NHL coach.
He not only led the Hartford/Carolina franchise twice, but went through the pressure cooker of coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs. Up until December, Maurice was one of the longest-tenured coaches in the league with the Jets.
Maurice, now 55, has also been a head coach in the AHL and in Russia.
His 2002 Carolina team made it to the Stanley Cup Final and three of his teams — most recently the 2018 Jets — made it to the conference finals.
Maurice is currently fourth in NHL history with 1,684 games coached — trailing Quenneville for third by 84 games.
He is also seventh with 775 wins and, on the flip side, the NHL’s all-time leader with 680 regulation losses. Quenneville is sixth in that regard, with 98 fewer regulation defeats.
In 24 seasons, nine of Maurice’s teams have made the playoffs with four escaping the first round.
Although some have derisively used that number against Maurice, consider in the same time span the Florida Panthers have been to the playoffs seven times and made it out of the first round just twice.
According to reports, Maurice will get a three-year contract to come to South Florida which is exactly how much time was remaining on the six-year deal Joel Quenneville signed in 2019.
In the end, the Panthers decided they needed an experienced voice behind the bench.
There is no doubt Brunette did an excellent job after being thrown into a tough situation.
In October, Quenneville abruptly was forced to resign back and, after two-plus seasons serving as an assistant with the Panthers, Brunette was charged with the task of replacing him as head coach of the Panthers.
“Totally weird,’’ Brunette said of having to replace Quenneville, his mentor and close friend.
“It still feels a little weird, awkward especially with how it went down. We were so excited about what we were building and Joel was the figurehead. It was his culture.
“But in three years, our group has bought in and the culture has changed. They saw some success and they want more of it. Then this threw us for a big loop. I was thrown the keys and asked to keep it between the lines. … It was a messed up situation but we had to keep it moving in the right direction.”
Brunette and his staff did just that — only the interim tag never came off.
Zito explained it and Brunette said he understood it.
Brunette, who finished second in voting for the NHL coach of the year award behind Darryl Sutter, always knew the Panthers could go in a different direction.
He knew it during the season, knew it when it ended.
Brunette may be disappointed with the Panthers’ decision to replace him, but he was not blindsided by it.
“I think we’re all interims, anyway,’’ Brunette said before leaving for Las Vegas as coach of the Atlantic Division team at All-Star Weekend.
“You could be called ‘head coach’ but you are really just day-to-day, especially in today’s coaching world. We see it in the NFL and every sport, really.
“I haven’t had a conversation about it and haven’t put any thought into it. I’m just into the every day grind of trying to get better. I really love our team. It’s more about just getting through this season. There are going to be challenges going forward, puzzles going through my head. I don’t have time to think about next year or the future. That’s 100 percent honest.”
When asked if he wanted to stay on as head coach of the Panthers the night Florida lost Game 4 in Tampa, emotions were obviously high.
Brunette did not give a strong answer to the question but did so two days later on that podium inside FLA Live Arena.
With a year left on his assistant coach contract, the team would like Brunette to return and be part of Maurice’s new staff although another role within the organization could be worked out.
To say Brunette is highly thought of throughout the Panthers — from players to the front office to owner Vinnie Viola — is an understatement.
“Yeah, of course,” Brunette said when asked if he wanted to return as coach. “I love this team. But I understand the business and it is what it is. I can only control what I control. What I did is on the table and it is what they want to do moving forward.
“I understand the other side of the equation. It was a fun ride and I enjoyed every moment of it. …
”Everyone needs to take a step back, that’s the healthiest thing. They have to, I have to. I was thrown into this and completely blindsided. I have to talk to my wife to make sure she is on board, too. She has been in the game forever as well and sometimes that can wear you down a little bit. We’ll see. I definitely want to coach and this is a hard time for everyone right now. We all had aspirations of playing tonight.’’
As for Zito, he said the Panthers would “not make any rash judgements.”
Not when it came to players on the roster nor who would coach them.
He stuck to that. Hiring Maurice was the first big move in what could be an offseason full of them.
Things are just getting heated up.
“We have set the bar pretty high,” Zito said. “We hope to continue to get better. We have to. This was not good enough.”
Florida Panthers coaching history
Roger Neilson 1993-95
Doug MacLean 1995-97
Bryan Murray 1997-98*
Terry Murray 1998-2000
Duane Sutter 2000-01*
Mike Keenan 2001-03
Rick Dudley 2003-04*
John Torchetti 2004*
Jacques Martin 2004-08
Pete DeBoer 2008-11
Kevin Dineen 2011-13
Peter Horachek 2013-14*
Gerard Gallant 2014-16
Tom Rowe 2016-17*
Bob Boughner 2017-19
Joel Quenneville 2019-21
Andrew Brunette 2021-22*
Paul Maurice 2022-present
(*) — Indicates midseason replacement