Clock ticking on Bill Zito, Panthers to make decision regarding interim coach Andrew Brunette

Florida Panthers Interim head coach Andrew Brunette talks to Anton Lundell of the Florida Panthers during a break in actin against the Edmonton Oilers in the second period at the FLA Live Arena on February 26, 2022 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images) (Joel Auerbach, 2022 Getty Images)

SUNRISE, Fla. – Andrew Brunette took over running the Florida Panthers bench under some very strange and intimidating circumstances.

He was named interim head coach seven games into the season following the resignation of former head coach Joel Quenneville for his role in the Kyle Beach scandal that rocked the Chicago Blackhawks and NHL as a whole back in October.

The Panthers were 7-0-0 at the time, looking better than perhaps any Florida team had before to start a season.

Things could have gone sideways, or any assortment of wrong ways, after such a sudden and immense shakeup.

But they didn’t, not under Bruno’s watch.

As we all know, Florida went on to finish as the NHL’s best regular season team, holding an impressive 58-18-6 record when the final horn blew.

For his troubles, Brunette was named a finalist for the Jack Adams Award, bestowed annually upon the NHL’s best head coach.

And yes, while the Second Round sweep still hurts, it can’t be ignored that the Panthers advanced in postseason for the first time in 26 years. Where other men failed, Brunette found some success.

On Wednesday, Bruno made it abundantly clear that he wants to return as head coach of the Panthers next season, sans interim tag.

“Yeah, of course,” he said when asked point blank if he wants to remain Florida’s bench boss. “I love this team, but I understand the business. What I did is on the table. It’s (up to) what they want to do going forward, and I understand either side of the equation.”

He did make sure to include the caveat that any final decisions would have to be made along with his better half, but as any married man will tell you, that’s to be expected.

“She’s been in the game forever too, and sometimes this game can wear you down a little bit,” he said.

It’s no surprise that Brunette wants to return after the season he and the Panthers just dominated their way through, but that’s only one side of the coin.

Bruno’s success notwithstanding, the question remains, did Panthers President Matt Caldwell and his front office executives see enough out of Brunette in his 85 games as a head coach to warrant handing over the keys to the clubhouse on a permanent basis?

Remember, this isn’t the normal circumstance we generally see when a team is considering a new coach.

Usually, a team is in some sort of rebuilding phase and looking for a fresh start with a new voice.

With that in mind, it came as no surprise to learn how rare it has been for a Presidents’ Trophy-winning club to be in the market for a new coach.

Since the NHL began awarding the Presidents’ Trophy in 1986, there have only been three instances where a team finished first overall and needed to find a new coach that offseason.

It happened in 1993, when the Penguins and Scotty Bowman couldn’t agree on a new deal and he moved on to Detroit, then again the following year in 1994 when Mike Keenan bowed out after helping the New York Rangers erase the 1940 curse to take a job as coach and GM in St. Louis.

The last time it happened was in 2002, when Bowman retired after winning the Stanley Cup with the Red Wings, his ninth as a head coach.

So yeah, we’re in a rare situation with Bruno and the Panthers.

“I think everybody needs to take a step back, I think that’s the healthiest thing,” Brunette said.

One of the men ultimately making the decision on who will be leading Florida into battle next season is General Manager Bill Zito.

Since naming Brunette interim head coach, Zito has maintained that he would reevaluate the position once the season was over.

Well, the season is over, and he was asked again about the subject on Wednesday.

“I’m not going to get into that discussion,” he said. “We’re going to take a little bit of time here, we’re going to let all the emotions settle, we’re going to make a thorough and rational call and go through the decision-making process and come to conclusions for the right reasons.”

It makes sense that Zito would want to take a little time and let things marinate. There is a lot to process and absorb from the season Florida just saw end in an extremely sudden and unexpected way.

It’s also worth noting that there are currently a plethora of high-end head coaches who are unemployed and looking for a new gig.

Barry Trotz, Paul Maurice, Claude Julien, Rick Tocchet, John Tortorella and old friend Peter DeBoer are just some of the highly qualified coaches on the market.

But there are also four teams currently without a head coach and another four, including Florida, who finished the season with an interim bench boss.

That means some of those prime candidates won’t be available for long.

If Zito and his crew want to make a move, they best not wait.

As for Brunette, regardless of how the coaching situation shakes out, the sting of this playoff loss is one that is going to stay with him for a while.

“If you’ve been in this long enough, you only get so many chances, and the one we just left is the one that’s stinging the most,” Brunette said. “Maybe (I’ll feel better) in a month. I’m a stuck in the baseman for a while to figure it out guy, although I don’t have a basement anymore, we did in Minnesota, don’t have one here. It takes me a while to get through this. I’ll feel better, or I’ll feel worse. We’ll see.”

If it’s any consolation, Bruno’s players had nothing but ringing endorsements when asked about their head coach on Wednesday.

Panthers captain Sasha Barkov commended Brunette’s communication skills and the way he was able to “take over the way he did, stay calm and calm the group down,” after being suddenly named head coach seven games into the season.

“We respect him a lot. We love to play for him,” Barkov said. “We love to work hard for him, and we had a lot of fun doing it.

“Everyone in the room loves Bruno and hopefully he will stay here for next season and more to come.”

If Brunette’s services are indeed retained and he get the chance to try and finish what he and his Panthers started, it should be a much less tumultuous experience the second time around.

His first game behind the bench next season won’t come out of nowhere and slap him in the face the way it did in October.

Opening Night will be circled on the calendar all summer.

And when the time comes, if it’s Brunette leading the charge wearing one of his snazzy plaid suits, he’ll have plenty of support from the soldiers under his watch.

“He’s a good coach and he’s a good man,” said goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. “I think everybody is happy to play for him.”

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.