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With Expansion Draft in rearview mirror, Panthers GM Bill Zito prepares for Entry Draft, free agency and beyond

Zito provides updates on Aaron Ekblad, free agency, NHL Draft plans

Panthers General Manager Bill Zito speaks to the media via Zoom on July 22, 2021.
Panthers General Manager Bill Zito speaks to the media via Zoom on July 22, 2021. (Florida Panthers)

SUNRISE, Fla. – Bill Zito had barely moved into his new office at the BB&T Center when he oversaw his first NHL Draft as General Manager of the Florida Panthers.

Hired in early September of last year, Zito had just over a month to get acclimated to his surroundings and meet his new assistants, scouts and hockey operations personnel while trying to absorb as much as possible about the Panthers’ farm system and the team’s needs ahead of the rapidly approaching entry draft.

To call it a whirlwind would be a massive understatement.

“Last year was a crazy time,” Zito said Thursday. “I didn’t know most of the people and we were trying to cobble together a list and meet everybody and get situated.”

By all accounts, Zito and his guys did quite well despite the tough situation. Florida selected Finnish sniper Anton Lundell in the first round and bookended their draft with a young goaltender in Devon Levi that many consider to be a steal following his success with Team Canada at the 2021 World Junior tournament.

This time around, Zito and his crew are feeling much more comfortable ahead of the draft, which will be held virtually on Friday, July 23 (Round 1) and Saturday, July 24 (Rounds 2-7).

“It’s a well-oiled machine at this point,” Zito said. “I feel confident that the process now is where we need it to be for us to do the best job that we can.”

Heading into the draft, and barring any last-minute moves, Florida holds six selections: Round 1, pick 24, Round 2, pick 56, Round 4, pick 120, Round 5, pick 152, Round 6, pick 184 and Round 7, pick 210.

In preparing for the draft, Zito has leaned heavily on his senior advisors, Paul Fenton and Rick Dudley. Running the show for Florida in regard to the draft is Director of Amateur Scouting Shane Churla, who was hired by Zito last November after he held the same position for the Montreal Canadiens.

Churla has over 20 years of experience in amateur scouting for NHL clubs. He and Zito have enjoyed a strong working relationship and the two immediately saw eye-to-eye when it came to approaching the draft.

“When Shane came in, we shared so many of the same visions as to how the draft should be run,” Zito said.

Scouting players and preparing a draft board is one thing but executing a fluid plan when the clock doesn’t stop ticking is quite another.

Florida enters the draft with no major apparent needs, meaning they can explore potential selections with perhaps more of an open mind than if they were hoping to grab, for example, a right-shooting defenseman.

Zito was very candid, as he generally is, when asked about the Panthers strategy heading into the draft.

“I would say best player available, with the theme of organizational need in tandem with the best player available,” Zito explained. “At some point you’ll need to restock goalies, at some point you know centers and defensemen are harder to get than wings, so yes, there is some strategy associated with it, but by and large, best player available.”

With that mentality, it will be interesting to see how Round 1 of the draft shakes out for Florida on Friday night.

Picking 24th (well actually 23rd since Phoenix was forced to forfeit the 11th pick for violating NHL Combine testing policy), you can expect that a few higher-ranked players will fall to the 20′s, while others who were expected to be available late in the first round may have already been snatched up.

When the time finally arrives and Florida makes its pick, Zito and his staff will not be doing it from inside the dreary BB&T Center.

Nope, this year for the virtual draft the Panthers are taking advantage of their tropical surroundings and setting up camp (for Round 1) at the Lauderdale Yacht Club, and I’m fully expecting to see Zito announce the Cats’ selection in front of a stunning South Florida backdrop.

It’s a pretty cool way to show off the natural beauty that comes with living down here, something that the young player whose name is read by Zito on Friday will hope to experience in the not-too-distant future.

“We’re all very, very excited,” Zito said of the yacht club plans. “We’re thrilled to be able to show the rest of the league, and the world, what a wonderful place it is to call home. I think it’s really cool.”

During the course of his media availability, Zito provided insight into the Panthers’ pre-draft process while also discussing his outlook for the team ahead of next season and the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft that took place Wednesday night.

He always provides such candid, well thought out answers, I try to make sure and post as much as I can from Zito’s pressers.

One amazing answer was about how much he enjoys scouting and preparing for the NHL Draft.

“I do enjoy the process. I didn’t enjoy it this year obviously because you’re not in the rink scouting and watching, but I think for most of the people, when you spend your life in the sport you almost have to really enjoy the scouting process, where you go to these small rinks, and you may be in the Arctic Circle at some point. If you love the game and you watch (young players), and you’re thinking, ‘Can I project, can I see this young man making it to the NHL?’ There’s a sense of pride, there’s even a romantic side to the game where you… I don’t know, you just… it’s hockey, it’s a love of the sport where you can’t help yourself, and it is fun. It’s neat. You’re trying to build something and put a puzzle together, and I would be lying if I said that you don’t have a little bit of hope and a little bit of interest in each kid that you take. You’re cheering for them and you’re rooting for them. It’s a lot of fun. Yeah, there’s stress, there’s anxiety. You’re wrong sometimes and it just doesn’t work for whatever reason, but it’s an enjoyable process. It’s really a privilege.”

Zito was asked if he agrees with Gustav Forsling, who said earlier this week that he believes the future is bright with the Panthers.

“We have a number of wonderful players who are wonderful people led by a wonderful coach who is a wonderful person. I get a little giddy when I talk about our riches.”

After a brief follow-up question, Zito gave what I felt was the quote of the day. He explained how his confidence comes from the culture being built in and around the Panthers, and from constructing a roster of only players who truly want to be a part of the organization.

“If I look across the board at the talent level of the individuals, the buy-in of each person, their individual character and the fact that we are getting closer to the point where each player who is here wants to be here, and that’s an important part of the recipe that we’re trying to make, is that we want buy-in, we want people who want to be here, who want to be Panthers, who are proud to be Panthers, and I think you might have seen that manifest itself in the way that the team came together in the playoffs. Truly, the only way to win is as a team, and generally team members want to be on that team, and we’re getting closer and closer every day, so if you made an equation of the talent level of individuals that we have, which is significant, and their character, their heart, and their desire to be a part of this team, then I would say those would be the factors in the equation that add up to the sum that would lead me to agree with (Gustav Forsling) that yeah, the future is bright.”

Zito was asked to provide an update on the health of defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who was lost for the season after suffering a leg fracture in late March.

“I can’t tell you if he’s 100 percent or not, but he’s been skating. I’ve seen him and he looks fantastic. I can’t tell you specifically what percentage he is, or how close to 100 percent he is, as far as playing a game in the next day or week, but we anticipate absolutely he’ll be back for training camp and he’s on track to join us on a normal timeline for the season.”

With the NHL’s Free Agency window opening up on July 28, Zito was asked what he could reveal regarding Florida’s plans:

“We’ve reached out to the agents of our RFAs and UFAs, and we’re talking to all the players, trying to cobble together the best team that we can and stay within our budgets and re-sign the RFAs and hopefully keep some of the UFAs. We’ll look at the market and we’ll make the best decisions for the team that we can.”

Florida’s RFAs, or Restricted Free Agents, are Sam Bennett, Lucas Wallmark, Juho Lammikko and Samuel Montembeault.

Florida’s UFAs, or Unrestricted Free Agents, are Alex Wennberg, Brandon Montour and Nikita Gusev.

And finally, Zito seemed quite pleased when talking about Wednesday’s Expansion Draft.

Instead of losing a valuable piece of the roster, like Frank Vatrano or Radko Gudas, Florida lucked out when the Seattle Kraken used their exclusive negotiating window to sign UFA goalie Chris Driedger.

Florida was not going to re-sign Driedger. The journeyman netminder played spectacularly during his two seasons with the Panthers and earned himself a hefty pay increase, but with Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight already signed at a combined $10.925 million for the next two years (yes, we all know most of that is Bob’s contract), it made little financial sense to tie any more money into the goaltending position, a move that would also potentially hinder Knight’s development.

So yeah, the Expansion Draft couldn’t have gone any better for the Cats.

“It was great,” Zito said. “We didn’t lose anybody. That was the plan and it worked. It came to fruition that way and so it’s very helpful so far that we didn’t lose anyone. Could we lose UFAs yet? That’s a possibility, we don’t know, and we’ll find that out in short order, I guess. But with regard to the specifics of the (Expansion) Draft and that early UFA period and our signed (exposed) players, we came out unscathed and that was our plan, so we’re thrilled with it.”

As for Driedger, Zito had nothing but good things to say about the 27-year-old, who now gets the opportunity to be a number one goalie in a city (region, really) known for its amazingly passionate sports fans.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for Chris. A guy like that, he’s earned everything. I’m really, truly happy for him, (and) sad to see him not part of our organization. As many of you know, he was a big part of our team and of our (locker) room as well. Not just his on-ice contribution, but who he was as a person, and very, very popular with our team. Best of luck to him, most of the nights of the year anyway.”

About the Author:

David Dwork joined the WPLG Local 10 News team in August 2019. Born and raised in Miami-Dade County, David has covered South Florida sports since 2007.