Newly extended, Panthers GM Bill Zito has made Florida ‘an unreal place to be right now’

On the eve of the final day of his fourth regular season with the Florida Panthers, Bill Zito ensured he would be staying in Broward County for years to come by signing a multiyear extension with the organization Monday, and the news was reason for glee inside the locker room at the Baptist Health IcePlex on Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale.

Aleksander Barkov, one of the few Panthers who predates Zito’s arrival in South Florida, was already smiling at the first mention of his general manager’s name because he knows — maybe better than anyone else — how much Zito has meant to this franchise.

“What Bill has been doing on and off the ice is incredible,” Barkov said. “It’s an unreal place to be right now.”

When they plucked Zito from the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2020, the Panthers had only been to the traditional, 16-team Stanley Cup playoffs five times in their entire history. Now in Zito’s fourth season, Florida is heading to the Cup playoffs for the fourth straight year and entered its regular-season finale with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday still with an outside shot to win the Atlantic Division for the second time in three years. The Panthers also went to the 2023 Stanley Cup Final last year and won the Presidents’ Trophy during the 2021-22 NHL season.

Entering the regular-season finale, the Panthers had a 188-88-20 in Zito’s four seasons at the helm.

“He’s doing something really good here,” defenseman Gustav Forsling said. “He’s got a plan, for sure.”

Maybe better than anyone else on the team, Forsling exemplifies what Zito has done so well.

Only a few days before the start of Zito’s first regular season in 2021, Florida claimed Forsling off waivers and entrusted the speedy Swede, who didn’t play a single game in the NHL the year before, with an everyday spot in the lineup. Forsling is now one of the best defensemen in the NHL and landed an eight-year extension from the Panthers last month.

“Obviously, he’s meant a lot,” Forsling said. “He brought me here and I’m forever thankful for that.”

The shrewd moves, however, are only a few of the successes for Zito. On the other end of the spectrum, Zito’s biggest gambles have paid off, exemplified by his decision to trade franchise icon Jonathan Huberdeau to the Flames for Matthew Tkachuk in 2022, but also by his decision to let Andrew Brunette walk away after he was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award and instead hire coach Paul Maurice.

Now at the end of his second regular season working with Zito, Maurice isn’t surprised by the GM’s success.

“The driver is he’s incredibly smart. He’s very curious. He asks a lot of questions, so that’s the underlying capacity. Bill’s connected to every single piece of this,” Maurice said. “He completely defers to you in the end, but asks you questions in a positive way and the biggest one is, How can we do better?

“He kind of brings an energy every single day. He is tireless. His ability to focus on details for hours on end, have one discussion and then move onto another one, and have that capacity to stay on task-most of us, we need a nap and he’s on question two.”