SUNRISE, Fla. – To say Bill Zito’s debut season as general manager of the Florida Panthers was a success would be an understatement.
Did the team go out and win the Stanley Cup? No.
Did they win a playoff series for the first time since 1996? Sure didn’t.
So then why would the season be considered a success?
I’m glad you asked.
It’s not so much about the wins and losses, though there were a lot more of the former than the latter.
Past Panthers teams have had promising seasons before, only to find heartbreak waiting in the playoffs. But beyond that, and perhaps the bigger problem, was the inability to sustain whatever went right that year into a string of strong, prosperous postseason-worthy seasons.
So the reason this year was a success goes back to when Zito was first introduced as the Panthers new GM.
He said during his initial press availability that one of the first things he wanted to address was the culture around the team.
It’s not exactly an original plan, but absolutely one that has been tried and failed by many before him.
See this franchise has been mired in mediocrity for so long that the lack of success almost follows the team around like a dark cloud, hovering above like a constant reminder that it has been a quarter century since the Panthers have had any success in the postseason.
To walk into that situation and believe you can infuse the kind of winning DNA that successful teams boast and losing teams covet is, well, something.
It’s brash and it’s idealistic. It’s also been promised before.
The difference this time?
The change is actually happening.
“I think we made great strides,” Zito said Wednesday during a season-ending Zoom with the media. “(The players) were dissatisfied with how the season ended and felt that we could do more and were excited to get back for next season. That collective dissatisfaction about where we are actually makes me feel very, very good about where we are as a team and where we are as an organization at this point. It’s not good enough, and I don’t expect anyone to accept it as good enough, but it’s where we are, and it’s a start.”
Indeed, a successful regular season, perhaps the best this franchise has ever had, is nothing to sneeze at.
But at the end of the day, the goal is to win the Stanley Cup.
That might seem wide-eyed and far-fetched for Panthers fans to hear, but the arrival of Zito and what he and head coach Joel Quenneville achieved over the past year proved that the bar for hockey in South Florida has been raised.
Expectations are different.
A winning record, making the playoffs…no longer good enough.
“We’re measured by our results on the ice, so I’m not content,” Zito said. “I think everybody is pleased that the effort and the focus from the players is trending in the right direction. We all need to get better, and it starts with me. Every one of us can be better and work harder and be more focused and pay better attention to detail and do the little things better; be better teammates, be better managers. We have to make our day-to-day work habits better and just look every day to improve, and we’re all doing it and we’re all trying it.
“I think the players are proud to be Panthers. If that’s a measuring stick, then I think we made some progress, and I’ll leave it at that.”
Zito touched on a bevy of topics during his final media availability of the season. Here is how the rest of the digital presser went down:
SASHA BARKOV CONTRACT EXTENSION
Zito made it clear that a contract extension for Sasha Barkov was a priority for the offseason. Since the season ended so abruptly with the team’s first round playoff exit, Zito said the days since then have been spent as an “organizational week,” one in which he finished his last player exit meeting literally minutes before speaking to the media on Wednesday.
Zito said he would soon be reaching out to Barkov’s agent Todd Diamond, along with the agents for other players that have contract situations to work out this summer.
“It’ll be something that’s paramount for me, and we’ll address it in short order,” Zito said of a contract extension for Barkov.
AARON EKBLAD’S RECOVERY GOING WELL
It’s a little frustrating to think about what might’ve been had potential Norris Trophy candidate Aaron Ekblad not been lost for the season with a leg injury in late March. But alas…
Now the focus with Ekblad is making sure he’s fully healed and healthy when the team takes the ice for training camp in a few months.
As far as that goes, it appears all is on the right track.
“He’s making some pretty significant progress. I saw him yesterday and he was walking. That was a pretty significant guy to lose; he’s a pretty good hockey player. Other guys had to step up, and they certainly rose to the occasion, but that’s a difficult player to replace in your lineup, for any number of reasons. In addition to his on-ice contributions, off-ice he’s a leader. He’s a glue guy. His presence was missed.”
THE HORNY-GUDS EFFECT
Two of the very first moves made by Zito after he was hired last September were the additions of Patric Hornqvist and Radko Gudas, a pair of seasoned veterans who had been around the block and knew what it took to succeed at the highest level.
Zito was asked how those particular players helped change the culture on the team this season.
“I think it was self-evident. We saw the contribution, maybe in the first ten games, the way they compete on the ice, the emotion they brought, the way they play the game and the way they handle themselves. If you watch them on the bench, their interactions with the guys. I’m fortunate enough to see them behind the scenes. There was an incident in practice that I had referenced earlier in the season about Hornqvist pulling the guys back on the ice when they were leaving to do some reps on the power play. There is a lot also behind the scenes. Their empathy for their teammates, their communication with their teammates, the way they prepare themselves and arrive early, leave late, all those little things that go into it. Their impact was immediate and significant.”
WHAT ABOUT BOB…AND SPENCER?
Zito was asked several questions about Florida’s goaltending situation, with a so-so Sergei Bobrovsky still signed for another five years at $10 million per and the emergence of 20-year-old rookie sensation Spencer Knight.
It sounds like the best goalie will be given the chance to play, which could mean Florida ends up with a ridiculously expensive backup goalie.
“When (Roberto Luongo) gets back*, we’ll sit down with the goaltending department and will go through everything, with Coach Q and Robby Tallas, and decide on a strategy for the goaltending for next year. I thought Spencer did a great job, and I thought there were a lot of a lot of highlights to Bob’s season as well. I think I think there were areas too that that he would like to improve upon, but also had some bright spots, too. And also, Chris (Driedger). I can’t sit here and tell you specifically what the future is going to hold, but we’re going to review everything thoroughly and make some decisions.”
“We need to approach each season from a fresh perspective, and we’re going to do that. We’ll get with the goaltending department, and we’ll evaluate and do everything in our power, as we do with all the players, to help each of our players, individually, collectively, be as good as they can be, and I think they will be.”
“One thing we’ve been trying to work towards is the best players play. On any given night, Q is going to address the lineup, and he said this time and time again, ‘I’m gonna try and win a hockey game.’ There are a lot of factors that go into many things. We’re going to get with the goaltending department, and we’ll figure it out.”
*Luongo is the general manager for Team Canada at the World Championships currently taking place in Riga, Latvia. Zito actually had a funny comment about that:
“I just texted (Luongo) this morning. I never thought I’d wish Canada good luck, being a good red, white and blue, USA boy.”
BUSY OFFSEASON AHEAD
Wednesday night’s NHL Draft Lottery (congrats, Buffalo) was the precursor to what should be an extremely busy and fast-moving offseason.
Between the expansion draft, free agency and the NHL Draft, there will be a lot for Zito and his staff to cover in a shorter amount of time than you normally see during a summer offseason.
“There’s all kinds of things that can happen. We’ve known for some time who the free agents are going to be, so we’ve done our preparation on that, and of course we’ve known about the expansion draft for some time. That’s been the topic of discussion for months and months, and I think (Panthers Director of Hockey Operations and Salary Cap Management) Braden Birch is a little mock drafted out, we’ve done it so many times, the poor guy, but we’re prepared. The schedule will be a little compacted this summer, but we’re actually we’re looking forward to it, to continuing to grow and get better.”
LEARNING FROM THE PLAYOFF LOSS
A theme from several of Florida’s players during their exit interviews was a hunger that was growing, after having such a good regular season and seeing it go up in smoke as quickly as it did.
Zito expressed pure distain at the loss, calling it the most difficult moment he faced since becoming Florida’s GM, but he also made sure to find something positive to take out of it.
“We have to find that silver lining and I do think that it’s going to make us better. I can point to the reaction that I saw from our players as evidence of that, so that I’m not just making it up. It was sincere emotional regret from our guys, and real anticipation of next season already in the discussions that I’ve had with our players. It was pretty invigorating actually.”
COMING SOON: ANTON LUNDELL
When I asked Zito if there was a plan for Florida’s 2020 first round pick, Finnish star center Anton Lundell, to be in South Florida for training camp, he jokingly asked, “Who?”
“Yeah, he’ll be here. There’s a plan. I’m going to go get him myself,” Zito said through a laugh. “If you guys don’t know, he’s tearing up the World Championships. He’s a pretty good prospect.”
REFLECTING ON YEAR ONE
As he always does, Zito took his time answering questions on Wednesday, giving the media honest, well thought out responses.
When asked to reflect on his first season, Zito made it as much about his players as he did about his own accomplishments, while also sharing an understanding to why Panthers fans embraced this team so quickly.
“It was really rewarding because the guys embraced it. The guys in the room are a proud bunch who cared. They were galvanized as a team. I was really proud of them. We just moved into the community, but to interact and see the fans, and see on social media and some of the Zoom calls that we had, I didn’t really get to interact that much with the fans because of the bubble, but you could tell from what you heard and read, I think it meant a lot to them that the guys cared so much and that we were making some progress. So from that perspective, it was a lot of fun, actually.”
This season has been a difficult one for NHL players and staff due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Almost everyone directly involved with the team’s day-to-day operations spent the season working inside a virtual bubble, following strict safety guidelines that included daily testing and basically a life that took them from home to the rink and back, with little else permitted.
From Zito’s perspective, the Panthers handled it as well as could be expected, though he did give an assist to South Florida’s lovely year-round weather.
“I think it in in our case, being in South Florida helped us quite a bit, so far as when the players did go home, you could be outdoors, you could go for the walk, you could enjoy yourself in a perhaps more relaxed atmosphere away from the rank than some of the other cities. Certainly, early on and in January, I imagine it was a little easier here then perhaps Toronto or Ottawa, and some of the colder climates, and that might have helped us, might have helped everybody’s mental and emotional state. It was, from a team bonding and building standpoint, great. Everybody’s humanity came out. Players were really patient, I can’t recall any complaining about some of the restrictions that were placed on us, the nasal test, every single day you got a Q-tip up your nose, nor should there be complaining given the scope of the world that we’re living, but there wasn’t. There was no nothing. I can’t remember any whining or complaining, and everybody kind of bonded together to help, and it was nice. It brought us together, and the good came out…reaffirming in human nature.”