Every answer Bill Zito provides comes with a sense of context. Especially when the questions are about what he and his front office staff have done to transform the Florida Panthers into a Stanley Cup contender.
It starts with humility. Why? Because this is arguably the most successful era in franchise history. Think about that. The Panthers reached the Stanley Cup Final during the 1995-96 season, and have only returned to the postseason seven times since. Three of those appearances have come over the last three seasons. This is why Zito and nearly everyone else in the organization speaks with such gratitude. They know getting here was not easy.
But what is “here” in a manner of speaking? Coaches, management, players and even the public relations staff are all up front: Being in the playoffs is dope, but it would be even more enjoyable if they won a series. It is something they hope to achieve against the Washington Capitals and it would be their first since their lone Stanley Cup Final appearance.
There is also something else. Zito has to provide the context of his circumstances. He makes it known that his predecessor, Dale Tallon, left him with Aleksander Barkov, Sergei Bobrovsky, Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau and Mackenzie Weegar. Zito is right. But it is also not like Zito and his administration came to Sunrise and have stumbled into a level of success the franchise has never seen before either.
“They are pretty good players, but it was also about trying to get a culture of compete,” Zito said. “It was about bringing in the skill sets, the people and personalties and the player personalties that would mesh and try to create a team that shows up every night to compete to win, to work, to enjoy hockey, to have fun. That was sort of a two-fold project. You want to get the right players who are good people, good teammates and good character guys. But they are also good competitors.”
Zito was hired by the Panthers in September 2020 after previously serving as the Columbus Blue Jackets’ assistant general manager. The former agent-turned-executive took control and his administration aggressively went to work. Zito and his front office staff made four trades while also signing nine unrestricted free agents before the start of the 2020-21 season.
Forwards such as Anthony Duclair, Patric Hornqvist, Carter Verhaeghe and Alex Wennberg were in their top 10 in scoring. Defensemen such as Radko Gudas and Markus Nutivaara were part of a strengthened defense. Draft picks acquired in those trades turned into prospects such as University of Denver defenseman Michael Benning, KalPa and Finnish junior national team defenseman Kasper Puutio and Northeastern goaltender Devon Levi.
All of them would play vital roles that season or in the future. They are all players who joined the organization within months of Zito taking the job.
“There were some needs and some budgetary concerns,” Zito said. “I was blessed with some remarkable people on our staff. We all got together in tandem with the scouts, the analytics folks and some of the guys who were on the staff prior to me coming. We had to replace some scoring, add grit, do this, do that. I talked to Joel (Quenneville). I got input from everybody.”
Duclair, Gudas, Verhaeghe and Wennberg were signed for a combined $7.45 million in cap space that year. It helped balance Hornqvist’s $5.3 million cap hit. Zito and his staff also made other cost-effective decisions. Forward Mason Marchment was already in the system. He came over in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs, made under Tallon. Zito re-signed him in November 2020 on a one-year deal worth $700,000. He scored 10 points in 33 games. Marchment, who will be a pending UFA, was given a one-year extension that only cost $800,000 and responded by scoring a career-high 18 goals and 47 points in 54 games.
Lomberg was a UFA who only played 11 NHL games with the Calgary Flames. The Panthers signed him to a two-year contract, and Lomberg became one of their bottom-six anchors who also worked his way into receiving more time on the penalty kill this season. Lomberg cost the Panthers just $710,000. The second and final season of his contract resulted in him scoring nine goals and 18 points in 55 games. Zito and his staff didn’t waste any time and re-signed Lomberg to another two-year deal in November carrying a $800,000 cap hit.
“We had a scout Al Teur, who is with the Rangers now, he stood up and said, ‘I’ve seen this guy, Ryan Lomberg. He can play,’” Zito recalled. “There were some other folks who supported that. These guys, they put their reputations on the line and they say, ‘I think this guy can do it.’ It’s a hard job. It’s a really hard job. We’ve been blessed with some real savvy, real hard-working, thorough guys.”
Another decision they made that season was claiming defenseman Gustav Forsling off waivers from the Carolina Hurricanes. Forsling gave them more defensive depth and chipped in 17 points over 43 games while becoming a fixture on their penalty kill. Signing Forsling cost the Panthers just $700,000 in cap space that season.
That April, the Panthers had established themselves as a legitimate playoff team. Zito and his staff over the span of 10 days shed $3.425 million in cap space and were able to trade for forward Sam Bennett and defenseman Brandon Montour. The Panthers finished the season with a 37-14-5 record and reached the playoffs for a second straight season but were eliminated in the first round by the eventual two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
July arrived and the Panthers went back to work. Zito parted with Levi, who represented Canada at the U20 world juniors, and their 2022 first-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres for Sam Reinhart. They then packaged a prospect and a draft pick with Anton Stralman’s $5.5 million cap hit to the Arizona Coyotes for a seventh-round pick in 2023 to shave more cap space.
Zito said Reinhart was a player the club had identified as someone who fit several needs. He gave them a right-handed shooting, top-six option who could play center or on the wing. They heard he was a likable person and someone with character they wanted in their dressing room. He had the sort of two-way ability that presented the Panthers a chance to become more versatile.
But it meant having to part with Levi, even though they had Bobrovsky and long-term goaltender of the future Spencer Knight already under contract by then.
“It was very difficult,” Zito said. “John Davidson used to say in Columbus that ‘you gotta give to get.’ That’s one of the realities. It’s hard, I guess. I think you never want to give up. It’s always fun to try to get a player but never fun to trade guys. But it is part of the business.”
The Panthers did not stop with those trades. Duclair re-signed on a three-year contract worth $3 million annually. He went from scoring 10 goals and 32 points in 43 games on a one-year contract to finishing 2021-22 as the strongest season of his career. Duclair scored 31 goals, had 27 assists and ended the year with 58 points in 74 games.
An argument could be made that Duclair might be the strongest example of Zito’s reformation efforts. Zito had a familiarity with Duclair, the two having spent one season together with the Blue Jackets. Zito said the team needed to replace some scoring but didn’t have a lot of money. But he told Duclair that he could be given “a great opportunity” to play alongside guys like Barkov and Huberdeau, among others, who would get him the puck.
More than anything? It was a chance at trying to find a sense of stability for a player who had already played for five teams before coming to the Panthers as a 25-year-old.
“When I was talking to Anthony it was, ‘Listen, I know you as a person. I know you as a player. You are going to get a real opportunity,’” Zito said. “I talked to Joel and said, ‘This is a guy who needs a chance and needs to know he is going to get a real chance.’ We have really good players and when you play them with those players, they can help him. Joel was like, ‘100 percent.’ I told Joel that I think Anthony is a little bit different. He’s more mature than the guy you had in Chicago (in 2017-18). It was just a good fit. He had speed, scoring touch and it was a nice fit. That was kind of a round peg, round hole equation.”
Bennett signed a four-year extension worth $4.425 million annually. He made an immediate impact by scoring six goals and 15 points in 10 games after being traded from the Calgary Flames. Bennett also had five points in as many playoff games. In the first year of his deal, he went from having 27 points in 2020-21 to scoring a career-high 28 goals and 49 points in 71 games.
Forsling re-signed on a three-year deal carrying a $2.66 million cap hit. He scored a career-high 10 goals and 37 points over 71 games while receiving more than 175 minutes in short-handed ice time. Montour also re-signed with the team on a three-year deal worth $3.5 million annually.
All Montour has done in the first season of his extension is score a career-high 11 goals and 37 points in 81 games while playing on both the penalty-kill and power-play units. Reinhart also signed a three-year deal carrying a $6.5 million cap hit and he scored a career-high 33 goals and 82 points after scoring 40 points (in 54 games) in his final year with the Sabres.
Verhaeghe was another player who signed a three-year extension — which will kick in next season at $4,166,667 million per year — and had the best full year of his career in 2021-22 with 24 goals and 55 points 78 games. The prior season, his first in Florida, Verhaeghe had 36 points in 43 games. The Panthers knew about Verhaeghe, having seen him with the Lightning. They also knew the Lightning were facing salary cap constraints and that he was allowed to explore free agency.
Zito said the story of how they signed Verhaeghe, in October 2020, was a group effort. The Panthers were trying to find “value targets” within their budget. Several Panthers scouts said they believed Verhaeghe had upside and he showed flashes of his offensive talent in the AHL. They also told management that Verhaeghe had “worked his tail off everywhere” he played, which meant there wasn’t a huge risk when it came to his work ethic.
“Everyone was aligned on him. The analytics folks were on him as well,” Zito said. “When I called his agent, he was pretty diligent in asking questions about our roster and what opportunities would be there. His agent, Ian Pulver, who is a bright guy, saw the opportunity. Kind of like Anthony where it was, ‘Listen, they got good players. You go there, you are going to get to play with good players.’ It was that perfect storm of really good people all doing their jobs. Whether that was the agent saying his client has a good shot at success, scouts looking at players, our analytics people looking at the data.”
Then Zito gave credit to someone else: Lightning GM Julien BriseBois.
“Nobody gives Julien any credit,” Zito said. “They did not cut him. I probably should give proper kudos to Julien because he had him. He knew. I gotta give my buddy props on that one. It’s funny. Nobody gives him credit. What is he supposed to do? Sit (Steven) Stamkos?”
Zito explained how there are several moving parts that go into roster construction.
Because remember: Context is king.
“Sometimes, you forget it is not like a supermarket where you say, ‘We are out of ketchup. We need ketchup,’” he said. “You can sit down and construct a roster and say, ‘We need this, we need that.’ OK, but good luck getting that. I remember when I was an agent. Kenny Holland would always say, ‘You need a second-line center? OK, great, go find me one!’ Addressing the needs is easy, right? Actually identifying an asset to fulfill a need. Having that skill set be available. Have an acquisition price and have an asset have a cost that only you can meet.
“It’s a multi-step process that if any one of the steps fail, you cannot have that asset.”
This is why Zito and other GMs around the league speak in great detail about support staff. Zito said scouts are extremely valuable and “deserve so much of the credit” for the success teams have when they are able to re-tool their rosters. The Panthers have had scouting turnover in Zito’s two years, which is to be expected whenever there is a management change.
But the Panthers were still able to gain continuity. It is how the franchise has changed from when Barkov and Huberdeau first arrived. They had ideals that allowed them to finally tap into the potential South Florida has always possessed when it comes to being a hockey destination. That is how they were able to transition from Quenneville to interim coach Andrew Brunette within days of Quenneville stepping down because of his connection to the Chicago Blackhawks’ sexual abuse case. All Brunette has done in that time is guide the Panthers to the Presidents’ Trophy and further legitimize their championship aspirations while being a potential Jack Adams finalist.
In essence, these are the steps the Panthers have taken in order to be the type of team that can attract Joe Thornton in his pursuit of the Stanley Cup. Or grab Ben Chiarot to further supplement a blue line that was largely rebuilt over the last two years under Zito and his administration. This is how they won the Claude Giroux sweepstakes and now appear to have everything needed to win it all.
Most of what the Panthers have done under Zito and his front office staff has gone according to plan. Although there was no way to guarantee it would reach this point.
“No one is wrong more than me,” Zito said. “The nature of this business is we are wrong way more than we are right. If you do your work and you scout and you honestly evaluate and go to the games, OK, you are going to miss. OK, it’s no problem. We all miss.”
Zito said there are all sorts of challenges that come with scouting. Amateur scouts face them when trying to project how a teenager will perform either within months or years of being drafted. Those amateur scouts are also doing that while comparing and contrasting numerous developmental leagues throughout Europe and North America. And that’s if they are drafted at all given that nearly a quarter of NHL players went undrafted.
Pro scouts also face challenges. Two scouts could evaluate the same player. One might believe the player could be a good fit in their system. The other might view that player differently. There is a chance one of those scouts could be right. There is a chance both could be wrong.
“Everybody’s going to be wrong. The other thing is you are not necessarily wrong,” Zito said. “You can say I see this in a player. The guy can come in but that opportunity did not present itself in the organization. The player did not realize his potential, he goes somewhere else and he does. Then, that scout was right. It just did not happen in your organization for whatever reason. It could be personnel or too many guys ahead of him. You don’t know how players utilize the environment. There is no guillotine for being wrong.”
Now comes the big question. Well, other than: “Can the Florida Panthers win the Stanley Cup?”
How did Zito find a way to get everyone to buy into what he and his administration were proposing? Every GM has a blueprint to change their fortunes. But not all of them work out. So what did the Panthers do that has allowed them to find success with such an aggressive yet fiscally responsible approach? Zito said everyone has to deal with cap challenges. But the way to side step those challenges is by having everyone across all departments collaborate to build what they believe is the best possible team.
From a management perspective, it is about making sure everyone feels heard. As for players, Zito said it is about getting them to understand that they will get an opportunity. It was something he would tell his players when he was advising them on their next career move. So why not apply that same principle as a GM?
“If you put the right processes in, and you do the work the right way, then, if you are consistently underperforming or underachieving, you probably got the wrong processes,” Zito said. “Ultimately, it would probably be me who gets asked to leave and not the person who is following the plan. If you put the right plan in place, you will miss, you will probably get it wrong. … But it comes with the territory. It is OK. (Panthers owner Vinnie Viola) says all the time, ‘There is no penalty for failure as long as you execute the processes properly, correctly and with 100 percent effort.’
“It’s a great formula, and it resonates from him.”
(Top photo: Eliot J. Schechter / NHLI via Getty Images)