SUNRISE, Fla. – To call Bill Zito’s life hectic would be an understatement.
He’s hit the ground running since being hired by the Florida Panthers as the team’s eleventh General Manager, having to take on an expedited offseason that included a virtual NHL Draft and precarious free agency period due to a flat salary cap in a league trying to operate amid a global pandemic.
It’s no easy task for any of the NHL’s 31 GM’s, but to be dropped into the middle of such a remarkable situation while getting acclimated to a new front office and taking on greater responsibilities with a different team was more than a little jarring.
“I’ve said this on a number of different occasions, but it was sort of baptism by fire,” Zito said Wednesday. “But it was great because it forced me to accomplish a lot of things in a short period of time and go through a pretty intense learning curve.”
Away from the rink, Zito is very much a family man. He and his wife Julie have twin 9-year-old girls, Gigi and Friankie, and a 7-year-old boy, Billy.
Speaking to Zito from his soon to be former home in Ohio, the sound of kids playing and dogs barking acted as a subtle soundtrack to friendly chat about life and hockey.
When I asked how the process of moving from Ohio to South Florida was going, Zito responded by laughing and asking if he could crash on my couch.
“I’m working on it,” he said. “That part, with COVID and the kids in school, finding a home (in South Florida) and selling a home (in Ohio) and obviously where we are as a society, it’s a lot going on.”
Eventually we got back to talking hockey, and over the course of our conversation, free agent winger Mike Hoffman did come up.
Zito basically said that he had no specific updates to share, and that the situation in general was fluid.
“You look every single day and you’re always trying to evaluate what’s on the horizon, what other opportunities are out there, what’s happening trade-wise, what’s happening cap-wise around the League, and what options and opportunities may be available to you. So, it’s a constant process.”
Here is the rest of our discussion:
Things have quieted down in terms of free agency, but there are still some extremely solid players that don’t have contracts yet for next season. Is there anything realistically available that you’d like to add to the roster ahead of the season?
“As you approach free agency, you have to remember that in the life of a general manager in the National Hockey League, pretty much every single day you’re always looking to improve or get better. So when you go through the course of your conversations around the League, there’s always things cooking and all these things going on, and every day you want to evaluate and see if there’s something that we can do to get better, and that’s what we do.”
Do you have any update on negotiations with restricted free agent MacKenzie Weegar? You’ve said before how much you liked what you saw of him in the Toronto bubble.
“His arbitration hearing is Sunday (Nov. 8), so I’m sure we’ll talk to their side (before then). If we cannot reach an agreement, then they’ll be a hearing Sunday. Either way, we’ll have a contract by Monday at some point. You always want to get the right deal from both parties and both sides have to be happy for it to work. That would be our goal, to find a deal that works for both sides. I really enjoyed watching him play in the bubble and I gained an appreciation for him.”
Earlier this week you announced the hiring of Paul Krepelka as Assistant GM…can you talk about what went into the decision to bring him aboard?
"Paul is a guy that I’ve known since 1995 and has had a similar so career path to my own, where he was a college hockey player who went on to become an agent and really started building an agency. He worked with Bobby Orr and built that agency, rose to significant prominence in the agent community, and a few years ago divested himself of his interest in that agency in and came over the team side.
“I was always friendly with him as an acquaintance who I knew professionally, and always respected and liked him. I know the work that he did in Carolina and I know his work ethic and his character over the years, and I really enjoyed him. There became an opportunity where he became available, and we had a need for somebody with his skill set, and it just kind of worked out where the opportunity presented itself.”
And what will his responsibilities be with the Panthers franchise?
“He’ll come in and he’ll help me with the cap, the contracts, managing the CBA, many of the same things that I would have done initially in Columbus. He’ll also have some hockey responsibility. We have a few guys who are going to work together in Charlotte. He worked in Charlotte last year so obviously there’s a level of familiarity there, so he’ll work with them on that relationship as well. I think he’s going to have his own charge, and it will continue to develop as time goes on.”
The situation with Mitchell Miller has been a major topic around the NHL due to his bullying of Isaiah Meyer-Crothers, a Black classmate that suffers from mental deficiencies, when both were young teenagers in 2016. Can you say whether Miller was on the Panthers draft board of potential selections, or was he not under consideration?
“I recall having a discussion about it, and we did not put him on our list. He was not on our draft day list, but I don’t know if he was on it before I got there or not. I was aware of the situation, and he had written a letter to I believe every NHL team, but I don’t think he was on our list (before I arrived) and he was not added.”