SUNRISE, Fla. – Some recent Florida Panthers history was made at the BB&T Center on Wednesday.
For the first time in over a decade, the Panthers, who made the playoffs only twice during that time and haven’t won a postseason series in a quarter century, have hired a new general manager.
Nothing was restructured (Dale Tallon in 2017) and nobody was promoted (Tom Rowe in 2016).
Instead, Panthers President Matt Caldwell rolled up his sleeves and did things the old-fashioned way; he got to work.
Caldwell and Michael Viola, son of team owner Vincent Viola, spoke with more than a dozen candidates for hours at a time over a three-week period after Florida parted ways with Tallon on Aug. 10.
“I put my heart and soul into it,” said Caldwell. “I worked as hard as I possibly could.”
Vincent Viola and Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville were also involved in the process, which came to an end on Tuesday.
22 days after the search began, Viola, Caldwell and the rest of the Panthers brass knew they had found their man.
Caldwell officially introduced Bill Zito as the team’s new general manager during a press conference held via Zoom from the BB&T Center.
“This is a huge day for our franchise,” said Caldwell. “This is probably the most important decision that the Viola family has made since buying the team, and we believe [Bill is] the leader that’s going to take us to the next step.”
Zito, 55, signed a five-year deal with Florida. He has spent the past seven seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets after being hired as the team’s assistant general manager in 2013.
He worked closely with GM Jarmo Kekalainen, who also happens to be one of Zito’s closest friends, and the team’s scouting department, and was often involved negotiating player contracts.
During his time in Columbus, Zito helped to build a strong foundational program that kept the team flush with young talent, to the point where the Blue Jackets made the playoffs in five of his seven years with the club, including in each of the past four seasons.
“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,” Kekalainen said in a statement released Tuesday. “He is a dear friend and has worked extremely hard and is very deserving of this opportunity.”
The first thing Zito said at his introductory press conference on Wednesday reflected what many around the league have already expressed when asked to describe the new GM.
“I’m humbled, I’m humbled,” he repeated, almost reflexibly conveying a need to emphasize the feelings reverberating through his body, as if the big smile on his face wasn’t enough. “It’s a dream come true for me. This day is something I’ve worked for my whole life.”
Hard work and dedication are things that have become synonymous with Zito, so it only makes sense that he would ask as much of his players, now that he’s sitting at the head of the table.
But don’t get it twisted, Zito would only ask to receive exactly as much as he’s willing to put in, and he explained just how much that is when describing his 100 percent rule.
“I’m going to ask 100 percent from the players,” he said. “You give 100 percent to being the best player you can be, and commit that player 100 percent to winning all the time, and in turn I’m going to give you 100 percent to be the best GM that I can be and give you everything I have to prepare this team, whether it’s drafting, scouting, food, whatever it is, we’re going to give you 100 percent of our best efforts to help you win.”
Zito has been considered for several general manager vacancies over the past few years, as many in the hockey world believed it wasn’t a matter of if, but when he would be handed the reins of an NHL franchise.
Before he was given the keys to Florida’s castle, Zito first had speak with Caldwell and Michael Viola for upwards of three and a half hours during the initial interview. A second conversation, this one with team owner Vincent Viola, came next, and that discussion lasted for more than eight hours.
“I know how intense he can be,” Caldwell said of his boss while smiling in Zito’s direction.
With the strenuous hiring process now in the rearview mirror, it’s time for all parties involved to snap back into the reality of the state of the team and address the issues at hand.
Translation: Zito isn’t going to have much of an opportunity to set up his new office and get acclimated to late summer in South Florida.
He will have to hit the ground running, with the NHL Draft coming up on Oct. 9 and the free agency signing period expected to start on or near that date.
While October may seem like a ways away, you may not have noticed that we’ve already entered September.
(Seriously, it’s already the second)
When it comes to the Draft, Zito plans to spend the next month pouring through the research and information compiled by the Panthers amateur scouts and discussing which players they’d like to target.
“All of the work on the amateur draft here has been done. Now it’s fine tuning with regard to what to do with it,” Zito said. “It’s more now evaluation, what to do with the picks, and are there other available options.
“It’s going to be a series of conversations around the League to find out what’s out there and what could help the team. After those evaluations, [we’ll make] decisions and [take] possible action.”
Columbus was obviously also scouting and analyzing in preparation for the Draft, so there will be a lot of familiarity in regard to the evaluating the amateur players.
It’s a bit of a different story when discussing free agency.
The Panthers have several key decisions to make, and the man who will have the final say is Zito.
Perhaps a set of fresh eyes with an outside perspective will help ease the difficultly of how to handle pending unrestricted free agents Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov, Erik Haula, Brian Boyle and Mark Pysyk.
Displaying a genuine enthusiasm to dive into the deep end and get started, Zito expressed a desire to meet with his pro scouts as soon as possible before revealing he’s already had an informal chat with Panthers assistant GM Eric Joyce despite being on the job for only a matter of hours.
“We started these discussions, and we’ll go through and evaluate what might be prudent options,” Zito said. “Should there be an option available that makes sense for the team, we’ll pursue it.”
As a new general manager, Zito is fortunate to be walking into a situation where the cupboard is anything but bare.
Florida has some of the league’s top young prospects in Grigori Denisenko, Owen Tippett, Henrik Borgstrom and Spencer Knight, to name a few, and an extremely talented roster at the NHL level.
Speaking about the Panthers in place, Zito became animated and extremely enthusiastic, displaying what was likely a big part of what appeased him to Caldwell and Co.
“They’re surrounded by some great young pieces coming, and a coach that knows how to bring them along,” Zito said. “We just need to keep adding to those young pieces, helping them and bringing them along, and get some leadership to help them along.”
Ultimately, Zito and everyone else in Florida’s front office knows that if the team is going to succeed, at least in the foreseeable future, it’s going to be with the core they have in place.
Another big stallion or two may still be added to the stable, but the fate of the Panthers future will continue to fall on the shoulders of Sasha Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad and Sergei Bobrovsky.
As far as Zito is concerned, he made it clear where he feels the buck stops.
“I think it starts with the captain, who is just a fantastic player,” Zito said, referring to Barkov. “I don’t know him, but everything I hear about him is that he’s a wonderful, wonderful person.”
Zito said when his plane arrived in Fort Lauderdale Wednesday morning and he checked his phone, there was a text message waiting for him. It was from Barkov.
“It shows you the type of character that he has,” Zito said.