Florida Panthers' GM Bill Zito Should Win GM of the Year

Bill Zito, in his tenure so far with the Florida Panthers, has turned the entire franchise around, nearly singlehandedly, in more ways than one.
2023 Upper Deck NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7
2023 Upper Deck NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7 / John Russell/GettyImages

The Florida Panthers have an absolute gem of a General Manager in Bill Zito. It's high time he's recognized league-wide for it.

The year is 2020. In the throes of what would become one of the most tumultuous years in human history, things were just as tumultuous within the NHL and within one franchise in particular: the Florida Panthers. In August of 2020, the Panthers announced that they had fired longtime General Manager Dale Tallon, and would be conducting their search for the next GM externally, much to the delight of Panthers fans everywhere.

The front office needed a shakeup in the worst way; nearly a decade without winning a single playoff round, and years of mediocrity before that had landed the Panthers in hockey limbo; not quite enough assets to improve via crafty trades, but skillful enough players in Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad et al., to continue coming close to playoff contention but never quite being able to take the next step to true Stanley Cup contention.

Enter Columbus Blue Jackets' Senior VP of Hockey Operations, Associate GM, and Alternate Governor Bill Zito. The hiring was announced in early September of 2020 and Zito got to work straightaway, bringing in veterans like Patric Hornqvist and Radko Gudas. This sent a clear message to the Panthers' front office, fans, and the league in general that the culture around the team was going to quickly change.

In the now nearly four years that have passed since Zito took the helm, the Florida Panthers have made the playoffs without fail, progressing further and further each time - most recently facing the Las Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Finals. Within these four years, the Florida Panthers have made quite a few splashes with Zito at the helm, most notably the blockbuster acquisition of Matthew Tkachuk. Other notable additions are trading for Sam Reinhart and Brandon Montour, as well as signing Oliver Ekman-Larsson in the 2023 offseason.

Bringing on Paul Maurice at the head coach position has turned out to be an absolute win so far for Bill Zito, as the Panthers are currently sat atop the league with a game in hand and a point ahead of the two teams trailing them (at the time of writing).

More recently, the recent re-signing of Gustav Forsling to an unbelievable value of a contract (8 years, $5.75M AAV) has shown that Zito has fostered a culture that makes players want to be here. Forsling could've cleared $8M or so if allowed to go to free agency, but the buy-in that Zito has been instrumental in establishing prevented that from happening.

Bill Zito has changed the culture of the entire franchise during his tenure in Sunrise. The Florida Panthers, with Zito at the helm, have truly become a legitimate destination franchise; players want to come here, as was evident with Vladimir Tarasenko only agreeing to waive his no-move clause if it meant he'd be moved to Florida and with the recently acquired Buffalo Sabres' captain Kyle Okposo naming the Panthers as his only destination of choice. Florida has cemented themselves firmly in every conversation to be had when it comes to what teams genuinely have a shot at winning the Stanley Cup.

When it comes to the best General Managers in the league, Bill Zito is undoubtedly among them if not at the very head of the class. He has officially done that which, 5-6 years ago, may have seemed impossible: Bill Zito has made being a Panthers fan fun again.