Florida coach Paul Maurice remembers exactly what he was doing, and what he was thinking, when Panthers general manager Bill Zito called him last summer to say that the team was trying to acquire Matthew Tkachuk.
Maurice was packing for his move to Florida. He didn’t expect that Tkachuk would be joining him.
“Yeah, there’s no way you’re going to pull that off,” Maurice said to himself when the call with Zito ended.
But Zito pulled it off. And that trade — the league’s first sign-and-trade, actually, and a move that’s sparked Florida’s deepest postseason run in 27 years — is just one of the reasons why Zito was announced Wednesday as one of three finalists for the Jim Gregory General Manager of the Year award, along with Jim Nill of the Dallas Stars and Don Sweeney of the Boston Bruins.
Sweeney won the award in 2018-19. Nill and Zito would be first-time winners. The award will be presented June 28 at the NHL draft in Nashville.
Zito is a finalist for the second time in his three seasons with Florida, after also making the list in 2020-21. Since the creation of the award in 2009-10, Zito and Marc Bergevin (2012-13, 2013-14) are the only two general managers to be a finalist in two of their first three seasons.
The award is for this season, but Maurice said he sees Zito being a finalist as more of a cumulative tribute for his work since coming to the Panthers in September 2020.
“It’s from the day he showed up, right? It’s not this year, because there is a continuation of everything that’s happened here,” Maurice said. “He’s got a great eye for players, for sure. And he has this great, really great, balance between being exceptionally aggressive when he sets his mind that ‘this is the right path,’ but not as aggressive as necessarily a style.”
It’s true that Zito’s approach has been varied, all within the framework of doing whatever is necessary to give the Panthers the best chance to win.
Zito wanted Maurice, wooing him successfully last summer while the veteran wasn’t sure he wanted to coach again. He wanted Tkachuk and paid a steep price for him — Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar, plus a $76 million commitment over eight seasons — but was rewarded by Tkachuk having one of the best seasons of anyone in the NHL.
And another big move was no move at all, with the Panthers not getting involved in any swaps at the trade deadline.
The message was clear: Zito believed this group — which was floundering on the outside of the playoff picture for much of the regular season — would figure things out and make a run. Again, just like the Tkachuk trade, his vision was rewarded.
“Bill’s very smart and he’s not going to overreact and he believes in our coach and our players in the locker room,” Panthers President Matthew Caldwell said earlier in this playoff run. “So, I think that was a strong message.”
Zito came to Florida three years ago after seven years in the front office of the Columbus Blue Jackets — where he had been senior vice president of hockey operations, associate general manager and alternate governor.
Zito played college hockey at Yale, coached at Wisconsin while going to law school there, practiced law for a bit and then spent nearly two decades as an agent — building Acme World Sports into a top agency within hockey. He shifted to the Blue Jackets in 2013, was a candidate for other GM jobs before coming to Florida and was GM of USA Hockey’s bronze-medal-winning team at the 2018 IIHF World Championships.
The Panthers won the Presidents’ Trophy last season and have gone deeper into the postseason in each of Zito’s three years. He landed Maurice and assistants Jamie Kompon, Stanley Cup champion Sylvain Lefebvre, and Myles Fee last summer, brought a new way of using analytics to the Panthers by creating the Performance Department led by Chris McLellan, and added to the team’s programs designed to enhance player health and wellness.
Above all else, he’s almost entirely reworked the roster. The only players currently on the Panthers’ roster who appeared for the team in the season before his arrival are Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
“Bill’s not a guy that calls you on the phone a lot of times with things he’s not sure of,” Maurice said. “We talk a lot about ideas that he has. And they’re all well thought-out: ‘Where we are, how can we get better, how can we move forward, where do we need to get better.’ He’s like that all the time.”
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