The Hamilton Spectator

A big thinker and a problem solver

Panthers general manager Bill Zito is taking the approach that may bring a Stanley Cup to Florida

- TIM REYNOLDS

There’s a question that Florida Panthers general manager Bill Zito likes to ask people. “What’s two plus two?”

The person typically seems a bit confused before telling Zito the answer is four. And that leads to followup queries from Zito, a lawyer turned agent turned general manager. He’ll ask if they considered another answer. Why not say six minus two? Eight minus four? Three plus one?

“They came up with an accurate solution to the equation,” Zito said. “But was it the best solution? And did they even take time to consider another solution? It’s all about problem solving and really thinking about the best solution.”

That’s not Zito’s approach to math. It’s his approach to everything. He is a thinker. A problem solver. And he’s turned the Panthers, who played for the Stanley Cup last season and are at the top of the NHL again this season, into something they were not before he arrived — a consistent winner.

It’s an era like none other in team history, and the run toward this all seemed to really begin when Zito arrived.

“Bill takes in all opinions, but he does what he thinks is right,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “He has a very strong vision and belief. Bill has a tremendous capacity to process and work. He never stops. It never ends for him. He has the ability to stay on an idea and thrash it through and come to a decision.”

Some decisions, like trading for Matthew Tkachuk, are easy. Some decisions, like trading away Jonathan Huberdeau — the primary piece Florida gave up for Tkachuk — are hard. But most of them have paid off nicely for the Panthers.

Here’s the stat that might sum everything up: In the team’s 26 seasons before Zito’s arrival, the Panthers won more than half their games only three times. The club has already clinched that it’ll happen this season for a fourth consecutiv­e season in the Zito era. And since the team has the best record in the NHL, a second Presidents’ Trophy in the past three seasons is very much in play, as well.

All this success under Zito has happened with three different head coaches in those four years, plenty of roster shakeups and while dealing with some salary-cap restraints that Zito had to navigate to make moves such as the one that brought Tkachuk to Florida. This past week, he made other big moves, bringing in Vladimir Tarasenko in a trade from Ottawa to help with the playoff push and signing defenceman Gustav Forsling to an eight-year extension. He’s setting Florida up for success now — with a vision toward the future, as well.

“My first year, I came from Finland and everything here felt like it was on a different level. It felt like a dream,” said Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov, who had already been in Florida for seven seasons before Zito arrived. “I thought nothing can get better. And then Bill came in, and he brought this way of thinking that we’re going to keep making everything better. Everyone works together.”

The Panthers have a .675 point percentage — meaning they’ve collected slightly more than two of every three possible points — in the Zito era; among every general manager in NHL history with at least 250 games on the job, only one has a better record. Sam Pollock’s point percentage was .685 in his 14 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens. Nobody else has a better record than Zito does.

Not bad for a guy who was a Milwaukee Brewers bat boy as a kid, played college hockey at a little place called Yale, nearly aced his LSATs on the way to becoming a lawyer, coached for a bit as Wisconsin, was a past GM for USA Hockey and spent the first phase of his NHL life as a highly successful agent before moving into the front-office world as an assistant GM in Columbus before finally taking over in Florida in September 2020.

“He understand­s how to make a place a great destinatio­n for players to go to,” Panthers president Matthew Caldwell said when Zito was hired.

Time has proven how right that statement was. Zito has rebuilt the Panthers’ roster; no NHL team stays intact year to year, but the only primary players who were on the ice with Florida prior to Zito’s arrival are Barkov, Aaron Ekblad and Sergei Bobrovsky.

The Panthers have had 11 different general managers. None of the first 10 won more than half their games. Zito is the exception.

“He has a great eye for players. A great eye for people,” Tkachuk said. “Whether it’s players or trainers or a coach, he always has the right eye for the right type of people. And then he just goes after what he wants.”

There’s about one-quarter of this season left. The playoffs are looming. The Panthers are the favourites right now, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, to win the Stanley Cup. What’ll happen, who knows. But it’s hard to find a big reason why the Panthers can’t contend to finally win a title.

Zito got hired by selling Panthers owner Vincent Viola on Florida becoming a destinatio­n franchise. His plan has worked.

“It starts with the character of the individual­s in that room,” Zito said. “Those players are committed and committed to winning and being selfless, who are really, really good people. It all grows from there.”

 ?? JOE CAVARETTA SOUTH FLORIDA SUN SENTINEL ?? In the 26 seasons before Bill Zito’s arrival, the Panthers won more than half their games only three times. The club has already clinched that it’ll happen this season for a fourth consecutiv­e season in the Zito era.
JOE CAVARETTA SOUTH FLORIDA SUN SENTINEL In the 26 seasons before Bill Zito’s arrival, the Panthers won more than half their games only three times. The club has already clinched that it’ll happen this season for a fourth consecutiv­e season in the Zito era.
 ?? ?? Paul Maurice
Paul Maurice
 ?? ?? Vladimir Tarasenko
Vladimir Tarasenko

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