Panthers’ Bill Zito Should Be a Shoe-In for GM of the Year

At the end of their last playoff series against the New York Islanders, the Florida Panthers decided they needed a new sense of direction. As a result of this revelation, they ended up letting go of general manager Dale Tallon after 10 years of service on Aug. 10, 2020. About a month later, on Sep. 2, 2020, they would hire what they felt was their guy in Bill Zito as their new general manager. Zito came onto the scene in Sunrise with a huge resume within the Columbus Blue Jackets organization as he was a former associate general manager, senior vice president of hockey operations, and alternate governor for them.

During his first season so far in Florida, Zito has made fantastic moves that have changed the culture of the Florida Panthers franchise and finally got them to winning potential.

Trading Matheson and Sceviour for Hornqvist

One of the first moves he made was trading away defenseman Mike Matheson and forward Colton Sceviour to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for the Stanley Cup-winning forward, Patric Hornqvist. Not only did this move get a bad contract off of the books for Florida, but it resulted in bringing in someone with toughness, leadership, and a power-play presence.

Patric Hornqvist Florida Panthers
Patric Hornqvist, Florida Panthers (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)

Hornqvist has thrived in his time with Panthers as he is currently leading the team in power-play goals with eight, fourth on the team in points with 30, and fifth on the team in goals with 14.

Getting Duclair for Cheap

Former Ottawa Senators forward Anthony Duclair had arguably one of his best career seasons last year as he had 40 points (23 goals, 17 assists) through 66 games played. As a result, he was named to the All-Star game that season as a representative for Ottawa. Because of this, he was expected to get a massive payday during the free-agency run.

However, Zito had other plans and Duclair agreed to a one-year deal worth $1.7 million. Not only is the deal cheap, it tells him to prove that he can play with the big boys.

So far, he has shown he has very high offensive ability as he has six goals and 18 assists through 35 games played. Since returning from his recent injury, he’s been playing at an elite level as he has eight points (two goals, six assists) in his last six games. Duclair clearly wants to be here in Florida with his recent success, and hopefully, he’ll earn it.

Signing Verhaeghe to a Team-Friendly Deal

During his first offseason as general manager, Zito went to work on day one of free agency as he brought in many pieces. One of those free-agent acquisitions was former Tampa Bay Lightning forward Carter Verhaeghe, who was coming fresh off a Stanley Cup win. He was signed to a two-year, $2 million deal with an annual average of $1 million a year.

Ever since he landed in South Florida, Verhaeghe has been a key contributor to the success of this team. He’s currently tied for second on the Panthers in goals with 17, fifth on the team in assists with 18, third on the team in points with 35 and leads the team in plus/minus with a plus-23. In addition, that high rating also makes up for eighth overall in the NHL.

Related: Tampa Bay Lightning That Got Away: Carter Verhaeghe

Unfortunately, he is currently missing time due to an injury and was listed as week-to-week. However, that does not discredit his performance and should be back at full strength in time for a deep postseason run.

Adding Sandpaper With Gudas Deal

On the same day he signed Verhaeghe, he reached out to former Washington Capitals defenseman Radko Gudas. He was then inked to a three-year deal worth $7.5 million at $2.5 million a year. Since joining the Cats, Gudas has been a hitting enigma. Not only does he bring in the toughness the team desperately needed, but he’s also thriving in that field as he is currently first in the league in hits with 213 total.

In addition, he’s been heating up in the scoring department as of late as he has two goals and an assist over his last five games. He might also bring the secondary scoring the team needs right now.

Keeping Weegar as a Panther

Much like his previous two summers, defenseman MacKenzie Weegar filed for arbitration in an attempt to get a good contract. While they resigned him for cheap last couple of times around, this past seemed much harder to get him inked as he had a breakout year with the Panthers in the 2019-20 season.

Once again, Zito worked his magic and signed him to a three-year, $9.75 million deal with an annual average of $3.25 million a year.

During his time in Florida, Weegar has been a massive factor for Florida’s defensive core and is on the top pairing with Aaron Ekblad. His speed, shooting, and defensive mindset make him one of the most underrated defensemen in the NHL today.

Getting Gusev at an Affordable Rate

During this past trade deadline, the New Jersey Devils placed highly praised forward Nikita Gusev on waivers to terminate his contract. He was arguably one of the next best and upcoming players as he was a phenom in the KHL with 82 points (17 goals, 65 assists) through 82 games last season with SKA St. Petersburg. Unfortunately, it did not pan out with the Devils.

Zito decided to give him a second chance as he brought him in on a one-year deal worth $1 million. So far, he’s been a little quiet on the scoring side as he only has three assist through five games played. But he’s shown he has great puck-handling skills and he has what it takes in the NHL. In addition, he was placed on their top power-play unit, so with head coach Joel Quenneville’s confidence in his abilities, it will hopefully translate into his first goal as a Panther soon.

Acquiring Montour and Bennett

During the trade deadline, Zito got back on his phone and brought in what he felt were key pieces in a playoff push. Those moves were acquiring defenseman Brandon Montour from the Buffalo Sabres and forward Sam Bennett from the Calgary Flames. Among fans, both moves were met with some criticism due to their costs and analytics. However, they have both been outstanding in their short time in Sunrise.

Related: Panthers Acquire Bennett From Flames

Montour’s time with Buffalo this season was not exactly the best. He only had 14 points (five goals, nine assists) through 38 games played and a minus-13 rating. Since stepping onto the scene in Florida, he has returned to the form he had as an Anaheim Duck as he has a plus-6 rating and a goal through his first five games as a Panther. He was even given some power-play time on Thursday night in a loss against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Bennett was one of the top prospects in the 2014 draft as he was selected fourth overall by the Flames that year. While his regular-season success was not the best, he was always a great playoff performer with 19 points (11 goals, eight assists) in his last 30 playoff appearances.

Sam Bennett Florida Panthers
Sam Bennett, Florida Panthers (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

Upon his first game on Saturday, he has been an absolute wrecking ball for this hungry Panther team as he has five points (three goals, two assists) through four games played. He’s been the key center in a newly constructed line featuring Duclair and Jonathan Huberdeau. Additionally, he is a restricted free agent by the end of the season, so hopefully, he isn’t just a mere rental and is here as a long-term piece. Hopefully, his success continues well into the playoffs as they’re going to need his help.

Bill Zito Has Changed Everything

As evident through all of his transactions so far this season, Zito has completely turned this team around. He hasn’t signed anyone to a bloated deal or included no-movement clauses (NMC) in any of his signings. In addition, he is not going after big names such as Taylor Hall or David Savard. He is sticking to what he wants and how it morphs the team he sees fit.

Not only has it paid massive dividends for the team, but it also launched into a fit for the playoffs and potentially a division title. Even if they don’t get far, Panthers fans should be extremely excited to see what he can do next offseason. They should be ready, cause it might just blow their minds.

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