Florida Panthers Q&A: Bill Zito pulls back curtain on what has led to the team’s success

Bill Zito didn’t waste any time turning the Florida Panthers into his vision of success.

In just four seasons as the team’s general manager, he has helped shape the Panthers into a perennial contender. They have made it to the playoffs every year he has been at the helm, reached the Stanley Cup Finals last season for just the second time in franchise history and have the potential to make a repeat appearance this season if they can get past the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference final. The series is tied 1-1 entering Game 3 on Sunday (3 p.m. puck drop at Sunrise’s Amerant Bank Arena).

It’s why he is a finalist for the NHL’s Jim Gregory General Manager of the Year Award for the third time and why the Panthers gave him a contract extension and promotion to president of hockey operations in April.

Prior to the start of this series, Zito spoke with the Miami Herald about how he helped get the team to this point. He tried to deflect credit but provided insight into how the club operations.

Here are some of the highlights from that interview, with answers edited lightly for length and clarity.

At the trade deadline, you said the team might be ahead of schedule from what you initially thought it would be at this point. What has led to that?

“When I came, I had to be mindful that [former Panthers general manager] Dale Talon, and he doesn’t get enough credit for the fact that there were some pretty good players already here, so the timeline was a little maybe probably easier than people might think when you’re given such such wonderfully skilled players. I think it’s that coaching staff. They’re a great illustration of the management and scouting group and the player group, insofar as they are a team and they are all really sincere individually and real high character, high quality people. They’ve been able to get the trust in the players. And while that’s great, ‘OK, the players trust you and that makes you feel good and everything,’ the important part there is now they can push. Now, they have license to criticize — and the criticism isn’t to blame; the criticism is to encourage and help. It’s the same message, right? They can say ‘You didn’t have your check last night,’ so I can blame — ‘you didn’t have your check last night. We lost.’ — or it can be ‘You didn’t have your check last night. You’ll be better next game and we’re going to do drills today and I’m going to show you what you need to do.’ So now, when you’re looking at me going ‘I know these guys want to help me. I know it. I trust them.’ OK, now you’re pushing yourself. That’s why I think they have some so much success.”

Specifically with coach Paul Maurice, how did his ability to seemingly push the right buttons with each player help in that?

“I don’t want to canonize him, but it’s almost as if he could address a room of people and say something that at once punches me in the chest and envelops you with a hug. Same word, same tone, same message, and somehow the manner in which he said it hits affects you the way it was needed and affects me the way it was needed. And there are two completely opposite emotions, right. He knows who to pull. He knows who to push. He knows who to hug. It is significant level of emotional intelligence.”

How rare is it to have a coach like that?

“I haven’t even found people in life — whether it’s the butcher, the baker or the candlestick maker — who have that skill set. It’s unique, and it’s particularly helpful, so far as being a leader of men and as a teacher and a mentor.”

You have two big players about to be come unrestricted free agents in Sam Reinhart and Brandon Montour. Any update on how negotiations are going with them?

“After the season, we’ll look back at it. We have we’ve made a lot of progress, and we have a lot of work still to do. We’re gonna do everything we can to to keep the best team and best players.”

The franchise under your watch has had great success finding diamonds in the rough — Gustav Forsling, Carter Verhaeghe, Ryan Lomberg, Josh Mahura, Jonah Gadjovich, etc. What goes into finding these players and then being able to maximize their talent?

“Our pro scouting department is just remarkable. The work and the humility that those guys have — and I say humility because when we interact and try to make personnel decisions and free agency decisions, as a scout, it’s almost like being a player where you want a little bit of validation and you want a little bit of credit for what you believe in, in addition to the fact that they earnestly actually believe in themselves that ‘This guy can play.’ The group that we have has figured out a way to selflessly interact and come to the best decisions. They’re not always perfect and they’re not always right, but they’re pretty good. We’ve had the most success when everybody in the room agrees. When they say yes on a player, go get the player; he can play. [Senior advisor to the general manager] Rick Dudley said to me once, ‘If I tell you I like a player, you can go see him if you want and tell me what you think. But if I tell you he can play, you don’t need to go see him.’ And what he was saying isn’t that he’s this hockey God. He was saying ‘If I push and I go all in on someone, I don’t do it very often and when I do, you can bet on me.’ Well, everybody seems to have adapted that. The discussion is really healthy and they work and they work and they work and they consider what everybody else has to say. They think about it, so when we have the free agency discussion or the player acquisition discussions, it’s really very thorough. very rigorous in the application. Everybody learns and everybody works.

“Once they get here, how have all these players been able to have success? I think that is a testament to both the coaching staff and then the players themselves. Because the coaching staff will celebrate the good things. Imagine the difference in how just coming to work every day or come to come to play every day or whatever it is right? Like, ‘Oh, this is different, right?’ And then what it’s allowed them to do is then to push the players and to help them get the most out of them. It’s the same thing with the locker room. The guys in a room, you can make mistakes. It’s OK. You’re going to screw up. It’s OK. It’s all right. We’re there together. And it starts at the top with Matthew [Tkachuk] and Sasha [Aleksander Barkov] and trickles down. Even the leadership and the way that hierarchy and group works out, different guys are the leader in different situations based on what they’re good at. It’s pretty cool.”

You and several people in the organization have mentioned that there’s no ego on this team. The top players celebrate others’ success even when they personally have an off night. It’s team over individual. How important is that to you?

“It’s a great illustration of that of the buy in, and then sort of the platform by which somebody coming into this environment gets to start. It’s ‘Oh, OK, come on in. Be yourself.’ It’s a really energizing atmosphere to be in. And I think at the risk of sounding dramatic, but it’s a good word for this, it’s inspiring. They tend to get the best out of each other.”

With Aleksander Barkov, is it even possible to put any more words into his impact on this franchise?

“Sasha is the friend that you have that nobody believes is what he is as a human. There aren’t superlatives to describe him because they’re accurate and they’re candid and they’re real. If you do have the occasion to get to know him, he talks quite a bit. You just have to let Sasha be Sasha — not what you want him to be, not what he needs to be, not what he should be. Just let him be who he is.”

The yin and yang, the sort of opposite’s attract, combination of Barkov and Tkachuk, how has that dynamic played out to you?

“That’s great. It’s a shared appreciation and admiration. I don’t think either one of them takes the good fortune that they enjoy individually for granted. And their sincere concern for the group I think is what sets them apart, what makes them special.”

Your background as as agent, does it help in any way in your current role as a general manager, whether its on the transaction front or building relationships with the players?

“On the business interaction, like transactional side, it just hasn’t that much because we’re at the cap. It’s more like I need a jigsaw puzzle guy to help me cut a new piece because I’m trying to do this and I’m trying to do that, but I think where it’s really helped is when we started this sports agency [Acme World Sports, in 1995], we didn’t have anybody. And it wasn’t like we could go to the first-round guys and say ‘Well, come with us.’ They would go, ‘Well, who are you? You don’t represent anyone.’ So we had to scout and then part and parcel to the way that we ran the organization was find good players. We had to ask ‘Why?’ not ‘Why not?’ We became accustomed to watching players and saying, ‘Oh, that guy’s pretty good.’ And there wasn’t a whole lot of downside if we were wrong. Like, we weren’t gonna get fired. We were championing the players and if the team lost, well, that’s your problem. You signed them, right? But you got a chance to see. I think that that more than anything was starting with the outlook when you when you did player analysis of what does he do well? Why not? Why can’t he? Could he play? Yeah? Well, let’s do that. I think that’s probably the most valuable part. In tandem with that would be then as an agent, getting to know the players, right, and then saying, ‘Oh, OK, well, I’ve got this elite guy, but he’s struggling here. What was it that helped him turn it around and get better, right?’ So you have a lot of on an individual level.”