Bill Zito is a thinker and a problem-solver. The approach might bring a Stanley Cup to Florida

Mon, Mar 11, 2024
NHL News (AP)

Bill Zito is a thinker and a problem-solver. The approach might bring a Stanley Cup to Florida

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) - There's a question that Florida Panthers general manager Bill Zito likes to ask people. "What's two plus two?"

The person typically seems a bit confused before telling Zito the answer is four. And that leads to follow-up queries from Zito, a lawyer turned agent turned general manager. He'll ask if they considered another answer. Why not say six minus two? Eight minus four? Three plus one?

"They came up with an accurate solution to the equation," Zito said. "But was it the best solution? And did they even take time to consider another solution? It's all about problem solving and really thinking about the best solution."

That's not Zito's approach to math. It's his approach to everything. He is a thinker. A problem solver. And he's turned the Panthers, who played for the Stanley Cup last season and are at the top of the NHL again this season, into something they never were before he arrived - a consistent winner.

It's an era like none other in team history, and the run toward this all seemed to really begin when Zito arrived.

"Bill takes in all opinions, but he does what he thinks is right," Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. "He has a very strong vision and belief. Bill has a tremendous capacity to process and work. He never stops. It never ends for him. He has the ability to stay on an idea and thrash it through and come to a decision."

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Some decisions, like trading for Matthew Tkachuk, are easy. Some decisions, like trading away Jonathan Huberdeau - the primary piece Florida gave up for Tkachuk - are hard. But most of them have paid off nicely for the Panthers.

Here's the stat that might sum everything up: In the team's 26 seasons before Zito's arrival, the Panthers won more than half their games only three times. The club has already clinched that it'll happen this season for a fourth consecutive season in the Zito era. And since the team has the best record in the NHL, a second Presidents' Trophy in the last three seasons is very much in play as well.

All this success under Zito has happened with three different head coaches in those four years, plenty of roster shakeups and while dealing with some salary-cap restraints that Zito had to navigate to make moves such as the one that brought Tkachuk to Florida. This past week, he made other big moves, bringing in Vladimir Tarasenko in a trade from Ottawa to help with the playoff push and signing defenseman Gustav Forsling to an eight-year extension.

He's setting Florida up for success now - with a vision toward the future as well.

"My first year, I came from Finland and everything here felt like it was on a different level. It felt like a dream," said Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov, who had already been in Florida for seven seasons before Zito arrived. "I thought nothing can get better. And then Bill came in, and he brought this way of thinking that we're going to keep making everything better. Everyone works together."

The Panthers have a .675 point percentage - meaning they've collected slightly more than two of every three possible points - in the Zito era; among every general manager in NHL history with at least 250 games on the job, only one has a better record. Sam Pollock's point percentage was .685 in his 14 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens. Nobody else has a better record than Zito does.

Not bad for a guy who was a Milwaukee Brewers batboy as a kid, played college hockey at a little place called Yale, nearly aced his LSATs on the way to becoming a lawyer, coached for a bit as Wisconsin, was a past GM for USA Hockey and spent the first phase of his NHL life as a highly successful agent before moving into the front-office world as an assistant GM in Columbus before finally taking over in Florida in September 2020.

"He understands how to make a place a great destination for players to go to," Panthers President Matthew Caldwell said when Zito was hired.

Time has proven how right that statement was. Zito has rebuilt the Panthers' roster; no NHL team stays intact year to year, but the only primary players who were on the ice with Florida prior to Zito's arrival are Barkov, Aaron Ekblad and Sergei Bobrovsky.

The Panthers have had 11 different general managers. None of the first 10 won more than half their games. Zito is the exception.

"He has a great eye for players. A great eye for people," Tkachuk said. "Whether it's players or trainers or a coach, he always has the right eye for the right type of people. And then he just goes after what he wants."

It starts with coffee. No, really.

Zito arrived for his interview with Panthers owner Vincent Viola wearing a coat and tie. The interview didn't start off that well; Viola wanted to keep things casual so the first order of business was telling Zito to ditch the tie. Zito followed orders and settled in for a talk that lasted seven or eight hours.

At one point, coffee was needed. Room service was called, some coffee arrived - and it was horrible. Zito remembered that he saw a high-end coffee machine elsewhere in the hotel when he arrived for the interview, and left the interview to go find some proper caffeination.

There are those problem-solving skills. Bad coffee might have ruined the interview. Instead, he got the Panthers' job.

"We travel with this really high-end coffee maker," Tkachuk said when told of Zito's belief that good coffee is vital. "Now it makes sense."

Thing is, it's not just about the coffee. Zito figures if something is going to be done, do it right, whether it's brewing an espresso or building a team.

Nobody wants bad coffee. Nobody aspires to be part of a mediocre hockey team.

"With Bill, it always goes back to the details," Tkachuk said. "If I like a certain type of sock tape, he's going around the world to find it. That's the type of guy he is for his players. He's really involved with helping us with whatever we need, but he's not overly involved like where he's in your face every day. It's a really good mix. He's been unbelievable to me. And we're so lucky to have him here."

There's about a quarter of this season left. The playoffs are looming. The Panthers are the favorites right now, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, to win the Stanley Cup. What'll happen, who knows. But it's hard to find a big reason why the Panthers can't contend to finally win a title.

Zito got hired by selling Viola on Florida becoming a destination franchise. His plan has worked.

"It starts with the character of the individuals in that room," Zito said. "Those players are committed and committed to winning and being selfless, who are really, really good people. It all grows from there. It's fueled by Vinnie, who comes and says, 'Do what you need to do to have a first-class operation.' And this thing, it's working."

In Florida, it seems to be working better than ever.

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TIM REYNOLDS Reynolds is the national basketball writer for The Associated Press. He's based in Miami, has covered the Heat since 2003 and has covered every Winter and Summer Olympics since 2002. twitter mailto "
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