His name has been in the rumor mill for several years and now Bill Zito has his GM job in the NHL. Zito, the former associate GM and senior VP of hockey operations in Columbus, is the new GM of the Florida Panthers, who parted ways with veteran Dale Tallon last month.
"Bill is an excellent mind in our game today who proved during his time with the Columbus Blue Jackets that he possesses great prowess for evaluating talent and building success," said Panthers owner Vincent Viola. "He brings great experience to our club and possesses a strong business acumen."
Zito first came onto the hockey scene as an agent, repping players such as Tuukka Rask, Brian Rafalski and Tim Thomas. Negotiating contracts and evaluating talent gave him a great foundation for front-office work (remember, both Thomas and Rafalski had to find success in Finland before the NHL came calling) and in 2013, Zito joined the Blue Jackets as assistant GM. One of his roles became GM of the AHL's Lake Erie Monsters (now known as the Cleveland Monsters). That franchise was always well-run on the business side, but Zito helped bring up the on-ice element and in 2016, the Monsters won the Calder Cup as playoff champions.
Throughout the years, Zito built up a sparkling reputation in hockey circles.
"As an agent, he was one of the guys who carried himself with a lot of professionalism and integrity," said one rival NHL exec. "And you can't say that about every agent. I have a lot of respect for him. He's a bright guy and a hard worker."
The fact Zito has worked on both sides of the negotiating table, through multiple collective bargaining agreements, is seen as another positive checkmark by the exec. He sees Zito as an aggressive but fair dealmaker who has good relationships with GMs around the league.
Not that his task in Florida will be easy. The Panthers were eliminated without much thought by the New York Islanders in the Return to Play qualifying round and in a normal season, Florida might have missed the playoffs altogether.
The team has a nice core led by captain Aleksander Barkov, scoring winger Jonathan Huberdeau and defenseman Aaron Ekblad, but goaltending was a major issue in 2019-20. That was doubly bad since the franchise's major move last summer was signing free agent Sergei Bobrovsky to a massive seven-year, $70 million contract. Bobrovsky responded by posting the worst numbers of his career as a starter, with a 3.23 goals-against average and .900 save percentage.
But Zito is quite familiar with his new expensive netminder, since the two were both part of the Blue Jackets organization before Bobrovsky inked his Florida deal.
"Everyone who knows 'Bob' knows he's the hardest-working guy in the room," Zito said. "His commitment to excellence is unsurpassed. He's a wonderful guy and I have a lot of faith in him."
Zito doesn't really have a choice: there is practically no way any other team would take on Bobrovsky's contract right now, it's too long and too expensive. Really, the only hope is that the former Vezina winner rebounds on his own.
There are decisions Zito can make, however. The Panthers have two significant pending UFAs in forwards Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov (their third and fourth-highest scorers this year, respectively), plus speedy Erik Haula and defenseman Mark Pysyk. Internal replacement options include prospect wingers Grigori Denisenko and Owen Tippett.
As for the draft in October, the Panthers currently have four selections in the first three rounds. Zito said that the amateur scouts have wrapped up their evaluations of the class already, so now it's just a matter of figuring out the best course of action for those picks. That could mean trading some for other assets.
Right now, the Panthers have an estimated $21 million to play with under the salary cap and according to CEO and president Matt Caldwell, the franchise is still deciding how much to spend for 2020-21. Input from Zito will be one factor, however.
What is clear is that the Panthers really believe in their new hire. Zito signed a five-year contract with the franchise and he saw a lot of similarities in the cultures of Florida and Columbus, describing both as family-focused businesses based on hard work and integrity. Florida's CEO sees the GM job as one that has evolved over the years and he wanted a great talent evaluator on top of other characteristics.
"You need a leader," Caldwell said. "Someone who will show up every day and be there for your staff and your players."
Based on Zito's opening press conference, they've got the right person.
"The excitement is overwhelming right now," Zito said. "I can't wait to get started."