Panthers GM Bill Zito Should Win Top Executive Award

Florida Panthers general manager (GM) Bill Zito’s style of management mirrors the way his team has played thus far in the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs: without any fear. After winning the Presidents’ Trophy last season and an opening-round series for the first time since 1996 (when the team got swept in the finals by the Colorado Avalanche), Zito traded his top point producer in All-Star Jonathan Huberdeau and a steady, productive defenseman in MacKenzie Weegar to the Calgary Flames.

“You gotta give to get. It was a situation that came up in a very, very short window,” Zito said to “When you have an opportunity like this, you have to pursue it.”

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Zito went for it. He swung a throwback, blockbuster hockey deal, but it did not come without the usual skeptical optics. Weegar was second on the team last year for points by a defenseman and just as steady as blue-line rock Aaron Ekblad. His loss on the back end created a huge void for the Panthers coming into this season.

Mackenzie Weegar Florida Panthers
MacKenzie Weegar, Florida Panthers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Two keys players and a future first-round pick shipped out after a run of success that Florida had not seen in 26 years. That’s a gutsy transaction. Many pundits said that the Panthers overpaid by adding in top prospect Cole Schwindt as well.

The move was not universally loved by Panthers fans and Zito had to know that the deal would be considered by some to be a gamble. Team captain Aleksander Barkov and Hurberdeau formed a unique tandem of size and skill. They had obvious chemistry and led many late-game comebacks. Yes, the team was swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round last year, but there was an upwards trajectory after years of futility.

Zito didn’t care. He knew his team needed a change and he knew exactly what they lacked. Enter gritty forward Matthew Tkachuk — a player with the potential for an immediate impact.

Matthew Tkachuk Florida Panthers
Matthew Tkachuk, Florida Panthers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It’s the kind of move that could have not produced either immediate or long-term results, but it has paid off handsomely right away. Zito was excited about the trade when it went through.

“Matthew is a tenacious, physical competitor who possesses a tremendously unique skillset,” Zito said to “He is a consistent elite offensive contributor and has emerged as one of the most complete and dynamic young players in the National Hockey League. When you have a chance to add a player like Matthew to the organization, the price is steep. That’s how things went down.”

The Panthers are now in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Panthers Acquired Important Players No One Else Wanted

Zito did lots of heavy lifting this past offseason. First, he had to watch several key players leave the Sunshine State. The Panthers lost veteran Claude Giroux, Noel Acciari, Ben Chiarot and Mason Marchment to free agency. Those are hard-nosed players that do the dirty work in corners, block shots, score greasy goals — glue guys.

Zito gave up some draft capital, prospects and established NHLers to acquire those guys, so seeing them leave for nothing could not have been easy. Zito pushed all-in with those moves and lost the hand. An excellent GM does it again without hesitation.

“There’s been a lot of change. There’s been a few new players. I don’t think it’s been that dramatic, but there’s been some [changes], and sometimes those things take time,” Zito said to “Then, of course, there’s the tactical changes that come with the system and the balance, too, with the way that we play. So it’s a work in progress.”

Related: Panthers’ Barkov Not Doing Enough vs. Bruins in 2023 Playoffs

The Cats’ GM went to work on building the roster to reflect his style. Aside from the big trade for Tkachuk, Zito did not make any sexy moves. Instead, he found players that other NHL teams didn’t want anymore. He invited Eric Staal to training camp and signed his brother Marc to a one-year contract. He inked centers Nick Cousins, who scored the game-winning goal in overtime versus the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 5, and Colin White as free agents. He brought in veteran goaltender Alex Lyon, a journeyman who has played more games in the American Hockey League in his career, on a two-way deal.

Alex Lyon Florida Panthers
Alex Lyon, Florida Panthers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Lyon, was an unheralded signing at the time, but he sure has made the Panthers GM look savvy. Without Lyon, who Panthers coach Paul Maurice inserted for struggling starter Sergei Bobrovsky, the team would not have made the postseason. Lyon came into the season third, or even lower, on the depth chart. Remember, the team also has Spencer Knight, a popular player who won 19 of 27 starts for the team in 2021-22.

“When we needed him (Lyon), he stepped up and he got the job done,” Zito said to The Hockey News. “He excelled.”

Every single addition made by Zito has played a key role in the Panthers’ late-season run to the playoffs and their upset of the regular-season record-setting Boston Bruins a few weeks ago in the first round. Bargain bin, scrap heap shopping? Zito may have penchant of finding gold at the dollar store and no transaction exemplifies that more than the acquisition of defenseman Gustav Forsling.

Gustav Forsling Florida Panthers
Gustav Forsling, Florida Panthers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Panthers GM got Forsling off waivers from the Carolina Hurricanes, which was the third organization for the Swedish blueliner. Forsling now plays on the Panthers’ top pair with Ekblad.

“Day 1 of training camp, that’s a guy you want to play with,” Ekblad told “The way he moves his feet, it’s incredible. I’m a big, slow defenseman, he’s a puck mover. It’s been great playing with him.” (from ‘Why Gustav Forsling got away from the Canucks and why he’s starring in Florida,’ The Province, 5/10/2023)

When a GM can find a minute-eating D-man who can shut down the opposition and contribute offensively for nothing, it’s the type of move that must be noticed by whoever votes for postseason awards.

Zito Hired the Right Coach in Maurice

Zito had a tough situation when the stories surfaced about former coach Joel Quenneville. He navigated that delicate predicament with class and chose Andrew Brunette in the interim, but when his team lost to Tampa in four games, Zito had to make a difficult choice about a vital organizational piece to direct the players he brought in.

The GM of the Panthers, again, chose wisely. It is well-documented that Maurice thought he was done with coaching. After a long stint with the Winnipeg Jets, the well-traveled, often poetic hockey coach, wanted some time to rest and reflect. Zito targeted Maurice as the guy to lead the franchise.

“When we spoke to Paul Maurice, it was overwhelming that this was the man to be the real fit,” Zito said to “It was a fit to take us in into the challenges that are ahead of us as we move forward, ultimately, to what our goal is.”

Paul Maurice Florida Panthers
Paul Maurice, Head Coach of the Florida Panthers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Maurice, who went on a tirade in Toronto during a television timeout to spark his team down the stretch, is the coach that really tied the room together. Zito made a beeline for Maurice; for a man he knew could steer the franchise in the right direction.

When a GM identifies what his team needs, then has the stones to push for that sudden change, and the players respond the way that the Panthers have this postseason, then a guy like Zito usually gets rewarded. This season, Zito should win the Jim Gregory GM of the Year Award.

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