SUNRISE, Fla. – Over the span of nearly two full years at the helm, Florida Panthers General Manager Bill Zito has put his fingerprints all over the franchise.
The roster has been re-shaped and modified, adding high-end skill and complimentary players to the foundational pieces he inherited.
It’s become the best collection of players on one Panthers roster in franchise history, and as such, it is rightfully considered among those in the category of Stanley Cup contenders for the foreseeable future.
Zito built a layered front office that includes voices from both the old school and the new school of hockey scouting and analysis while also adding an innovative department that focuses specifically on goaltending.
The only area of the team Zito had yet to fully wrap his hands around was coaching.
Not that he needed to, until recently.
When Zito was hired, Florida had a multi-Stanley Cup champion and seemingly Hall of Fame-bound head coach in Joel Quenneville.
Less than 14 months later, and just seven games into last season, Quenneville resigned in the wake of the Chicago Blackhawks’ Kyle Beach scandal.
With limited time to scrutinize and fully evaluate the situation, Zito did the sensible thing and asked Andrew Brunette, one of Quenneville’s most trusted assistants who had been with him in Florida basically since day one, to take over behind the bench.
The systems, the routines, the relationships, the vibe…the status quo remained the same.
A long-term decision on head coaching was still needed, but that would come later. The focus, for the next few months at least, would be on the task at hand.
Florida went on to have a historically good season under Brunette’s guidance, setting franchise records for wins and points, winning the team’s first Presidents’ Trophy and advancing past the opening round of the playoffs for the first time in 26 years.
But this team wasn’t built for regular season accolades. The bar of ‘just get out of the first round’ was raised long before the unexpected coaching changes were thrust upon Zito and his staff.
Once the shock and sadness of Florida’s second round sweep had been somewhat shaken off, the executives got to work on deciding what the best move behind the bench would be to get the Panthers to the promised land.
“We took a little time, and then we started with an internal process, and at one point we decided it was incumbent upon us, and prudent, to turn to the outside and talk to a few people,” Zito said during Thursday’s press conference at FLA Live Arena.
That process led the Panthers’ brass to veteran head coach Paul Maurice.
The 55-year-old had already amassed a wealth of experience for his relatively young age, serving as a head coach in the NHL for 24 seasons.
With nearly 1,700 games as a bench boss under his belt, including another 92 in the playoffs, Maurice checked plenty of the superficial, statistical boxes that team’s look to fill when searching for a new head coach.
But what about coaching style? How he communicates? How he leads? Handles adversity? So many of those intangible things must be judged with face-to-face questions and interactions.
It was at that first in-person meeting, which took place less than two weeks ago, when Zito knew he’d found the right man for the job.
“When we spoke to Paul Maurice, it was overwhelming that this was the man to be the real fit,” Zito said. “It was a fit to take us in into the challenges that are ahead of us as we move forward, ultimately, to what our goal is.”
Maurice sat to Zito’s left during Thursday’s press conference and listened as his new boss explained the reasons he was hired and the process that went into it.
After spending the previous nine seasons as head coach of the Winnipeg Jets, Maurice came to the realization last December that he had reached the limit of what he could offer that franchise.
It needed a new voice. The fit wasn’t right anymore, and Maurice had the intuition to realize that…and the gumption to act on it.
So when he heard Zito talking about finding the right fit – the right head coach with the needed voice to go with the carefully constructed roster – it rang true to what Maurice had experienced during his time in the NHL.
“I’ve been in the league a long time, but I’ve been very, very fortunate to really spend the vast majority of my time with two teams,” Maurice said, referring to the 13 combined years he spent with the Carolina/Hartford franchise and the nine seasons he was in Winnipeg.
“It was always the right fit, and that’s the sense you’re looking for as a head coach. Bill (Zito) and I hadn’t met before…and it’s, I don’t know, maybe the first 15-20 minutes, you feel it. You feel that fit here.”
Clearly the marriage appears off to a great start, and the honeymoon phase should take us right up to training camp.
Yes, Maurice is inheriting one of the best rosters in the league, but that also comes with expectations.
He said Thursday that he believes an NHL coach has a shelf life of six years, barring special circumstances such as championships or expansion teams.
“Unless you’re winning Stanley Cups or driving right to that edge all the time, I think the coaching window is about six years, to be honest with you,” he said.
That may be the case under normal circumstances, but it’s rare when a team as well-constructed as Florida is making a move behind the bench.
The Panthers were the NHL’s best regular season team last season, scoring more goals than any team in over 25 years. Then they went 4-10 in the playoffs and scored a whopping three goals during a demoralizing four-game sweep at the hands of their championship-winning cross-state rival.
The pressure to win, and win immediately, was going to be there regardless.
Now Maurice inherits it.
To his credit, Maurice expressed a comprehensive understanding of the situation he’s stepping into, and in terms of passion and dedication, the cards were on the table right from the start.
“Once it started, for me, it was over,” he said of his first meeting with Zito. “I was ready. I was all in.
“To be given this opportunity, it’s humbling. We have a lot of really strong pieces here. They’ve done some tremendous work here to get to where they are, and I’m honored and humbled to be a part of it.”
Maurice’s only Stanley Cup Final experience came in 2002 with Carolina. They lost in five games.
Florida’s lone crack at the Cup was only seven years prior.
Perhaps by teaming up, Maurice and the Panthers can exercise those demons together.
“I’ve watched the progression (in Florida) year to year,” Maurice said. “You have to be excited as a coach. You see that, you want to be part of that next level.”