The MVP of the Florida Panthers May Not Be on the Bench - Bill Zito Shows the Value of a General Manager

AP Photo/Nick Wass

Now in their 30th season, the NHL’s Florida Panthers are regarded as one of the elite teams in the league these days. This is a rather surprising new reality for both league experts and the media, as well as the fan base in South Florida. For most of those three decades, the Panthers have defined the term "moribund." General Manager Bill Zito has to be recognized for the amazing way and the speed he has crafted this franchise into a powerhouse.


The team has spent numerous years as also-rans, perpetually on the outside of the playoffs or occasionally making the second season as an early exit tune-up for the better franchises. Despite the rare appearance in the post-season, the Panthers went 25 years without winning so much as a playoff series, which also meant they annually would mostly draw from the bottom half of the amateur draft, infrequently selecting those transformative rookie prospects. 

More than a decade ago the new ownership felt they had made the move to alter the fortunes of the team, so they brought in Dale Tallon to build a winner. Tallon had done exactly that in Chicago, leveraging key draft picks in Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane with a roster of vets and bringing the Stanley Cup back to the city. And while making a few impressive draft picks in Sunrise Florida - namely Sasha Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, and Jonathan Huberdeau - Tallon never brought the squad to the next level. Then he sealed his fate after ten years with a massive fumble during the expansion draft of 2017.

Tallon wanted at the time to shed the big contract of Reilly Smith, but Vegas only agreed to take him on if they would also get Jonathan Marchessault in a separate trade. Marchessault was a gem of a find off of the waiver wire, becoming a 30-goal scorer for under a million dollars a season. Adding to this was management letting go of the head coach, Gerard Gallant, after he managed to get the young team to overperform. This was due to a dispute between old-school styles versus new-school cybermetrics. 


As a result, Gallant was hired for the Vegas bench, and that Panthers foundation brought Vegas to the Stanley Cup finals. In a biting irony, last year Vegas beat Florida for the championship, with Marchessault named the MVP of the playoffs.

After these questionable cast-offs led to more desultory years in Florida, the team ownership decided this was enough, and Tallon was let go after the 2020 season. In looking for the new head of the franchise, a cagey decision was made. This would be one that literally reconfigured the team and its fortunes.

While with the Columbus Bluejackets. Bill Zito showed he had a knack for finding talent. Years spent as an assistant GM led to him taking full reign of their minor league franchise, and then he returned to the parent club for a year. Columbus being a small market franchise meant they had to rely on making savvy decisions with an eye on a budget payroll. This conditioned Zito into recognizing that intangibles were where he could find value in player selections when it came to free agency and choosing players released by other teams.

He brought this mindset to the mid-market but budget-conscious Panthers, as years of middling success led to a half-filled arena most nights. It took little time for Zito to begin paying dividends. More than just focusing on the contracts of players, Zito bases his picks for the roster less on the stat sheet and more on the locker room. Character, role players, and other measurements go into his selection process and he has put together a squad that truly defines the term “unit.” Florida has the perfect mix of scoring prowess and a smothering defense, and they love to play a physical style at the same time. Add in a Vezina Trophy candidate playing goalie and this team is formidable.


Building on the core of the team, in his first years Zito signed Carter Verhaeghe as a free agent who delivers 30 goal seasons on the regular. On defense, he shored things up with Brandon Montour who also has a laser shot from the blue line. He struck a trade with Buffalo for Sam Reinhart who this year was second in the NHL in goals scored. Several other signings have filled out the roster to a degree that there is a glut of talent, leading to hard decisions for coaches concerning who will be healthy scratches.

But two audacious moves define the Zito era. After head coach Joel Quenneville had to depart due to scandal early in the 2021 season, Andrew Brunette was the fill-in interim on the bench. He surprised the league by guiding the revamped team to the best overall record. But Florida had an early exit in the playoffs and Zito then shocked many in the offseason by not retaining Brunette. His decision was to bring in veteran coach Paul Maurice to deliver post-season experience to a roster with limited playoff exposure.

The next splashy decision was trading away Panthers' popular fixture Jonathan Huberdeau, coming off a season leading the team in scoring. This was done to secure the rights to Matthew Tkachuk, slightly younger and with an NHL pedigree who is a rare combined talent of scorer and grit. The fans who were displeased by this trade were quickly calmed, as Tkachuk almost instantly became the face of the franchise. His first season was a 100+ points performance, with an All-Star selection and becoming a finalist for league MVP. 


The amazing thing is how starkly Bill Zito’s tenure can be measured. In just four years he has brought this team two division titles, three consecutive playoff runs, the President’s Trophy as the top-winning team, and a visit to the Stanley Cup. This week they face the New York Rangers for the second straight visit to the East Coast Finals. But the intangibles also rear up to explain how Zito has transformed the Florida Panthers franchise.

At the trade deadline in March, he was able to bolster the playoff run by bringing in Buffalo Sabres' Captain Kyle Okposo, and in Ottawa, Viktor Tarasenko was willing to waive his no-trade clause for the opportunity to join the team. For years, these types of signings were a challenge, as veterans would shy away from coming to Florida; now it is a desired destination. And as for getting bums in those seats, the Panthers ranked in the top 10 in attendance this season.

Success is evident beyond the ice surface. Zito has almost instantly built up a franchise to the extent that players want to come down, and fans want to show up to see them. Those are marks just as important as the results on the score sheets and in the standings.


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