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During the past 26 years, only two top executives have taken over South Florida teams and orchestrated a significant and immediate transformation, and both are Hall of Famers: the Dolphins’ Bill Parcells (Miami ascended from 1-15 to 11-5 in his first season as football operations czar) and Heat president Pat Riley, who also coached the team, immediately elevating Miami from 32-50 to 42-40 and the first of six consecutive playoff appearances.
New Florida Panthers general manager Bill Zito is very much on track to join that elite company. The Panthers have risen from perennial disappointments to one of the league’s best teams through more than a quarter of this season, thanks to Zito’s smart, savvy personnel moves — coupled with Joel Quenneville’s sage guidance and growth from several Panthers young players and veterans.
Zito has hit on virtually every personnel decision, and that’s a major reason the Panthers have morphed from a 36-28-5 underachiever that was quickly dispatched in the playoff qualifying round last summer to 12-3-2 entering Wednesday’s second game of a three-game homestand against Dallas (5 p.m., Fox Sports Florida).
“I’m thrilled,” Zito said by phone of the Panthers’ best 17-game start since 1996-97.
“We obviously feel very fortunate to be where we are. We’ve had lots of close games. Really excited because of the way the team has come together and the way the coaching staff has directed and guided the players to success. Joel has done such a good job managing those guys and making hockey fun and getting the most out of them. I see 16 [Aleksander Barkov] and 11 [Jonathan Huberdeau]; life is easy when you roll those two guys out. It’s been great to watch.”
It also has been a fulfilling first six months as GM for Zito, the 56-year-old Yale-educated dynamo who has a law degree from Wisconsin, worked as an attorney in New York and Chicago, founded and ran a big-time hockey agency and worked for the Columbus Blue Jackets since 2013, including GM of their Cleveland AHL affiliate, before the Panthers gave him his first NHL GM job on Sept. 2, replacing Dale Tallon.
Zito offered background on what led to the acquisition of six key pickups in his first offseason as GM:
▪ Forward Carter Verhaeghe: The second-year forward has been a revelation, with seven goals and six assists in 13 games, and doing it on a bargain contract (two-years, $2 million).
His NHL body of work before this season was fairly limited: nine goals and four assists in 52 games for Tampa Bay. But Verhaeghe, 25, was a big scorer in the AHL at Syracuse, New York, including an 82-point season.
Zito recalls the offseason meeting with his front-office colleagues and scouts:
“He’s a guy who had a lot of success in the American Hockey League and showed some flashes in Tampa. It was a topic of discussion in our scouting meetings. Everyone kept coming back to: ‘I remember from Syracuse and he did this or I remember that,’ and everyone collectively had that moment. Eight to 10 collective moments from some relatively savvy scouts. And collectively you build your argument [to sign a player] that way. I’m pleased with the job he’s done and hope he continues to sustain his play.”
▪ Winger Patric Hornqvist, who was acquired from Pittsburgh for Mike Matheson and Colton Scevior: Hornqvist, 34, won two Stanley Cups in six seasons with the Penguins and was popular in the locker room, but Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford said in the offseason that Hornqvist’s role was going to be reduced and he likely wouldn’t be part of their power play. He waived his no-trade clause because he felt the Panthers wanted him and the Penguins didn’t.
Though Zito declined to say which team initiated the talks, the Panthers seized on the opportunity, adding a respected, skilled veteran (246 career goals) who has three years left on his contract and remains a good value at $5.3 million per season.
Even beyond the on-ice contributions (eight goals, seven assists in 17 games), his leadership has made a tangible difference.
Zito recalls a day early in the season “when guys were going about their routine and guys had done a little bit of some extra work that everybody does as a matter of course. And all of sudden, he starts yelling at everyone: ‘Get down here! We haven’t done our power-play work!’ Everyone then went through collective work together. That was a direct identifiable exercise” that Hornqvist deserves credit for.
After making the trade in September, Zito was struck by something: “I can’t tell you how many phone calls I got from people saying, ‘Please tell him I said hi.’ That speaks volumes about his leadership and character. He makes others better.”
▪ Winger Anthony Duclair: This was the final one of Zito’s most significant offseason pickups, because Duclair wanted to take time before making a decision.
Zito had spent time around him in Columbus in 2018-19, when he had 11 goals and eight assists in 53 games. What struck Zito about that one season was Duclair’s “speed. It’s remarkable. He can really go. You see his obvious skill, physical talent, goal-scoring ability. He took his time, spoke to lots of teams [in free agency], evaluated the personnel. And kudos to Anthony for being as thorough as he could before making a decision. It’s a good fit for him.”
Duclair, who signed a one-year, $1.7 million deal on Dec. 19, has two goals and eight assists in 16 games.
▪ Forward Alex Wennberg: Of these six significant acquisitions, two players — Wennberg and defenseman Markus Nutivaara — came directly from Columbus.
A first-round pick of the Blue Jackets in 2013, Wennberg had a decent career in Columbus, with 40 goals and 161 assists in 415 games, including five and 17 in 57 games last season, but was bought out by the Blue Jackets after last season.
Zito quickly pounced, believing there was another level that Wennberg could achieve, even seven years into his career.
“We think there’s upside there, and this might be the place he could [continue his evolution as a player],” Zito said. “We [thought we] can use some center depth. When he became available, he became a viable option. I think he’s a guy that has tremendous skill set to contribute to the team in a myriad of ways.”
Wennberg, who signed a one-year, $2.25 million contract, has five goals and four assists in 17 games.
▪ Defenseman Radko Gudas: The Panthers’ defense needed augmenting, and Gudas became an early priority in free agency because “his level of competitiveness is off the charts,” Zito said.
“He plays a physical game and is a smart, smart hockey player. He combines that competitive nature and refusal to cede time and space. He’s not backing down; he’s not backing down from conflict or territory or puck battles. And when he gets the puck he can make a play.”
Gudas — who signed a three-year, $7.5 million deal — has 90 hits, 20 blocks, a plus-7 plus/minus and two assists in 17 games.
▪ Defenseman Markus Nutivaara: With Nutivaara expected to slide a bit on the Columbus depth chart this season, Zito capitalized on the opportunity on Oct. 8, sending winger Cliff Pu to the Blue Jackets for a veteran defenseman who had 17 goals and 43 assists in 244 NHL games.
Nutivaara — who’s earning $2.5 million this season and $3.3 million next season — is a skilled puck-moving defenseman with three assists in seven games.
“We thought we could use defensive depth and he was behind the eight ball there,” Zito said. “We saw upside there where maybe he could grow a little bit.”
Zito made a few other lower-profile pickups for players who have made modest contributions, including two-way wingers Ryan Lomberg and Juho Lammikko (two goals so far this season for the 2014 Panthers draft pick who had been playing in Russia) and center Vinnie Hinostroza.
Aside from Matheson, Zito didn’t trade a significant piece in his first offseason but made the difficult call of parting ways with proven goal-scorers Mike Hoffman (who has six goals and eight assists for St. Louis) and Evgenii Dadanov (two goals, six assists for Ottawa).
“It wasn’t that we didn’t want them,” Zito said of those two. But the question in meetings before free agency was “how much can you pay them and how long can we sustain that payment.”
Dadanov got three years and $15 million with Ottawa, Hoffman one year and $4 million with St. Louis.
The Panthers are getting similar production from Verhaege and Duclair at lower dollars. And though nobody can blame Hoffman and Dadanov for last season’s results, it’s clear (this is me saying this, not Zito) that this collection of players is a better fit.
During our conversation, Zito made a point to credit Tallon, who built part of the team’s foundation and drafted key nucleus pieces Barkov and Huberdeau during his 10 seasons here.
“You have to give credit to Dale; he did a pretty good job,” Zito said. “We talked [after Zito got the job] and I owe him a call.”