It is now official: Bill Zito is the 11th general manager in the history of the Florida Panthers.
Zito, who founded a powerhouse agency before joining the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2013, was announced as the Panthers’ GM on Wednesday morning.
“I’m humbled and honored to accept the position of General Manager of the Florida Panthers,” Zito said in a statement released by the team.
“My family and I want to thank Matt Caldwell and the Viola Family for their confidence in me for this opportunity with the Panthers.
“I believe in this organization and I am incredibly proud to be a part of it. Our team has great potential and I look forward to start working together in building something special in South Florida. I can’t wait to get to work.”
Team president Matt Caldwell said Eric Joyce will remain in his role as VP of hockey ops and assistant GM.
The Panthers officially parted ways with longtime GM Dale Tallon on Aug. 10 with Caldwell saying he had interviewed close to two dozen for the vacancy.
Zito, known for analytical scouting and working contracts, apparently stood out above the rest.
On Tuesday evening, Caldwell said the Panthers were talking to three finalists but soon afterward, NHL Insiders Elliott Friedman (Sportsnet) and Frank Seravalli (TSN) reported Zito was Florida’s guy.
The Panthers called those finalists on Tuesday night to thank them for their interest and to let them know of the Zito hiring.
“We are thrilled to welcome Bill Zito as General Manager of the Florida Panthers,” owner Vinnie Viola said in the team statement.
“Bill is an excellent mind in our game today who proved during his time with the Columbus Blue Jackets that he possesses great prowess for evaluating talent and building success. He brings great experience to our club and possesses a strong business acumen.”
Zito, 55, was a hockey player at Yale before playing professionally in Europe. He then returned to the U.S. and went to Wisconsin for law school where he served as an assistant coach for the Badgers.
After working in law for a bit, Zito turner his attention toward being a player agent and founded Acme World Sports in 1995.
Some of the NHL players Zito and his agency represented include Tim Thomas, Tuukka Rask, Antti Niemi, Kimmo Timonen and Brian Rafalski.
Born in Pittsburgh but raised in Milwaukee, Zito gave up being an agent to join Jarmo Kekalainen as the assistant GM of the Blue Jackets in 2013.
He took over as GM of the team’s AHL affiliate in Cleveland in 2015 and watched over the Monsters as they won the Calder Cup that same season.
Said Kekalainen: “Bill Zito’s contributions to the Columbus Blue Jackets over the past seven years have been many as he has played a significant role as a leader within our hockey operations department.
“He is a dear friend and has worked extremely hard and is very deserving of this opportunity.
“While I am disappointed to see him move on, I am happy for Billy and his family, wish him well and thank him, on behalf of our organization, for his dedication, counsel and friendship.“
Developing players through the draft, and the AHL system, is something Zito takes to heart.
“If you want to have success, you have to have a feeder system and produce your own players,” Zito said last spring when the Monsters were in the Calder Cup playoffs against Syracuse.
“You have to have those players not only exist but contribute. Look across any teams who have success at the NHL level, and that roster is going to be populated with guys who came up and actually played in the minors for a while.’’
When John Davidson left Columbus to head up the Rangers last summer, the team promoted Zito to senior vice president of hockey operations, associate general manager and alternate governor of the team.
It appeared to be only a matter of time before Zito took over his own team as he had interviewed for numerous openings the past few years including for the GM job in Buffalo, Carolina, Minnesota and New Jersey.
Zito had also recently interviewed for the Arizona job.
Zito has a few ties to the Florida organization although not ones as deep as some of the other candidates he was competing against.
He obviously knows goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky from their time together with the Jackets — although Bobrovsky’s relationship with Columbus management was contentious in his final few seasons.
Zito’s boss in Columbus is also the older brother of one of Florida’s top scouts.
Jari Kekalainen has been widely hailed for pushing the Panthers to draft Sasha Barkov with the second overall pick of the 2013 draft. Florida bypassed defenseman Seth Jones in doing so with Nashville taking Jones at No. 4.
A few years later, the Preds traded Jones to Columbus where he has evolved into one of the league’s top d-men.
Zito also hired former Panthers’ forward and assistant coach John Madden (whom he used to represent as an agent) to coach the Monsters. Madden currently lives in Palm Beach County.
Below is Panthers’ radio voice Doug Plagens, who was with the Lake Erie (now Cleveland) Monsters interviewing Zito at Blue Jackets‘ development camp five years ago.
Zito is expected to be formally introduced in a video press conference Wednesday afternoon so, more later today.