NHL.com’s Q&A feature called “Five Questions With …” runs every Tuesday. We talk to key figures in the game and ask them questions to gain insight into their lives, careers and the latest news.
The latest edition features Bill Zito, who was hired as general manager of the Florida Panthers on Sept. 2. Zito had been the senior vice president of hockey operations, associate GM and alternate governor for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Zito started with the Blue Jackets as assistant GM on Aug. 12, 2013 and was GM of Columbus’ American Hockey League affiliate in Cleveland, helping it win the Calder Cup championship in 2016, when it was called the Lake Erie Monsters. Zito had previously worked as a player agent, founding Acme World Sports in 1995 and representing players including goalies Tuukka Rask, Tim Thomas and Antti Niemi.
Bill Zito had long wanted to make the jump from associate GM to general manager and, after being a finalist for several jobs, saw his wish realized when the Panthers hired him to replace Dale Tallon in September. That thrust Zito into remaking and refashioning the Panthers in the midst of an offseason like no other, with little more than a month to prepare forl the 2020 NHL Draft and the opening of free agency.
Zito oversaw a draft in which the Panthers had nine draft choices, highlighted by No. 12 pick Anton Lundell.
Two days later, free agency opened. The Panthers signed defenseman Radko Gudas and forwards Alexander Wennberg, Carter Verhaeghe, and Vinnie Hinostroza. Asked about two Panthers free agents who remain unsigned in forwards Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov, Zito said “I’ve been checking in with the agents for a number of different players and will continue to do so and gauge the marketplace and make prudent decisions on positions and spending and try to build the best team that we can.”
While an associate GM, Zito interviewed with nearly half a dozen teams, including the Buffalo Sabres, Minnesota Wild, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, and Seattle Kraken, and was linked with others. But he didn’t hit until the Panthers came calling.
“You have to put the waiting so long thing in perspective,” Zito said. “For people who enter the NHL and then are a GM within seven years, that’s a pretty reasonable amount of time, in fact. Pretty fortunate when you look at it that way, right?”
Zito considers himself fortunate, to have had the experiences that he’s had, under general manager Jarmo Kekalainen and former president of hockey operations John Davidson, now the president of the New York Rangers, with the Blue Jackets, and as an agent, in forming the plan he has taken into Florida, where he has hit the ground running.
“It’s been non-stop,” Zito said. “Literally from the time I get up till the time I go to bed, straight from Sept. 2 until today. It could be overwhelming, but it’s also been a blessing in many ways because it’s forced me to learn things, it’s forced me to deal with things, it’s forced me to make decisions and learn from them. So baptism by fire, but I’m baptized. So you make it through and then you’re like OK, now you know.”
Here are Five Questions with … Bill Zito:
How would you assess what the Panthers have done this offseason, through the draft and free agency?
“We’re at mile 1 of the marathon. No, I think it’s been a tall order coming into a new organization in this situation where — and I haven’t even had the privilege of meeting the players or engaging our staff, a lot of the things you take for granted. So it’s been a little surreal, from an introduction to the organization standpoint. From the drafting standpoint, I’m pleased with the way that the staff came together in some really difficult times with a new guy coming in that most of the staff had never met and coming together and fine-tuning a list and working together to do the best job we could with regard to the best draft we could have. And in free agency, the same thing, aligning ourselves with regard to what our goals were in free agency. Identifying the targets. Reacting relatively last minute to the marketplace and the non-[qualifying offer] guys and working our way through that. So it’s been hectic. Busy. But rewarding — I’ve learned a lot — and fulfilling.”
What lessons did you take from your time with the Blue Jackets?
“The first one obviously was the amateur draft. That was the one that came to mind right away. And I really haven’t even been able to implement the things that Jarmo taught me there. That will kind of manifest itself moving forward as far as structuring things and processes. It’s difficult for me to pick them out. … For sure, pro scouting. Just the way in which we discuss players, the way in which we would compare, contrast, debate, analyze, evaluate. So when we went through the process here, and some of the players we had a very short period of time, the pro staff was here and there were some of the established Florida guys who flew in, who I hadn’t met face-to-face, and then we had some of the new guys and we were all kind of meeting each other for the first time and we have TSN on, the hockey shows, oh so-and-so was not qualified, the list comes out, you’re like, oh boy, what about him? And now we’re trying to work up the analytics, we’re trying to do all this thing, all the information gathering, all the compare and contrast and debate, so those processes were something that was a very, very valuable tool that I had gleaned from Jarmo and JD.”
How did being an agent impact dealing with free agents from the other side of the negotiating table?
“It’s mostly a people thing. So that’s one area. And one thing that I did remember was, July 1 as a solo agent was a completely different experience than a GM with a staff of 10 people around you and multiple phones and TVs and email, what have you. I remember sitting by myself with a handful of clients on July 1 and … you just get through it. You’re just making the calls and trying to balance it. It was a different world. But I learned so much — so much — from doing that by myself and trying to stay composed and saying no to a deal and going, wait a minute, did I just turn down tens and tens of millions of dollars? Oh my god. And some of the things that you can’t believe that you did that you take for granted now. There’s a range of skills that you learn as an agent that are very helpful in the GM chair. Not the least of which is the information-gathering process that you go through via the experience of your clients. So you certainly can learn from their experiences. And it’s quite valuable.”
Do you feel like the Panthers are close to a finished product, or is there more work to be done?
“Not to be coy, [but] I think particularly a team such as ours, you’re never finished. So I’m always working. I think that you could say that about the Columbus organization and something that Jarmo, you’d always hear him say, ‘We’re always working. We’re always looking to upgrade. We’re always looking to improve.’ So that’s kind of a mantra and that’s a standard operating procedure. With regard to the more specific situation of this particular free agency period, I think we are still working. We’re looking to fine-tune the roster. Could we start today? Sure. Could we improve? Sure. I’m continuing to do my job. That’s what I’m supposed to do. And we’re [working] hard at it. We’ve been here every single day and we’ll continue to examine all the options and the available players and upgrade the roster if it’s prudent.”
How does your experience with goalie Sergei Bobrovsky in Columbus inform your belief that he will bounce back this season, after going 23-19-6 with a 3.23 goals-against average and .900 save percentage in 2020-21?
“It’s easy. If you spend any time with Bob, if you know him as a person, it’s easy. I have no reservations and it’s easy for me to say because I know him. And he is — I’ve said this to a number of different people — he is the hardest working guy I’ve ever seen. And I’m not the only guy who says this. I know we live in an age of superlative, but it’s almost embarrassing when he’s working out day after day after day. I get embarrassed in front of myself. It’s like, oh man, I’ve got to go run, I’ve got to go do something. His attention to detail, his preparation, his focus and his commitment to being as good as he can be, it’s second to none. It truly is. And I think there were even times in Columbus when we were like, Bob, you’re working too hard. So that’s what makes it so easy. Then if you know him as a guy, too. So I have no reservations about the guy. None.”