It’s time for another edition of the THN Hot Seat, an ongoing series of THN.com columns in which we identify a member of each NHL team who will be facing all sorts of pressure in the coming season. The person we present as being the Hot Seat “honoree” may be an NHL player, head coach, general manager, or team owner. Today, we’re looking at the Florida Panthers.
PANTHERS HOT SEAT: BILL ZITO, GENERAL MANAGER
WHY: Zito took over as Panthers GM in September of 2020, but less than two years later, his footprint on Florida’s roster is deep. Yes, he inherited the gargantuan contract of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky – someone you could argue should be on the Hot Seat – but Zito has redesigned the Panthers’ lineup in a relatively short time, and he now has to answer to skeptics of his blueprint for success.
For instance, Zito has traded away all three of Florida’s upcoming first-round draft picks, and in two of those trades, he has nothing to show for it, as star forward Claude Giroux and defenseman Ben Chiarot have moved on from the Panthers. The third first-rounder was part of a blockbuster deal for star winger Matthew Tkachuk, but Zito has made rental trades that haven’t helped them push beyond the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs lost on long-suffering Florida fans and media. It’s not outrageous for teams to peel off draft picks and prospects when management believes they have a veteran roster that needs veteran help, but when those kind of trades are made, failure to thrive is normally pinned on the GM. That is true in this case.
As noted above, there’s another player dealing with huge pressure this season, and that player is Bobrovsky, who is tied with star center Aleksander Barkov for the biggest salary ($10 million) on the roster. Bobrovsky posted his best regular-season numbers (2.67 Goals-Against Average, .913 Save Percentage) since becoming a Panther in 2019-20, but although he also played well in the playoffs, Bobrovsky was outplayed by Tampa Bay Lightning counterpart Andrei Vasilevskiy in a second-round sweep. Bobrovsky has three seasons left on his contract, and if he slips in his performances, he’s not going to be easy to trade (and there are few impact goalies available anyway).
However, it all comes back to Zito this year. He’s drastically remade the chemistry of his group by trading star winger Jonathan Huberdeau for Tkachuk, and he has no salary cap space to work with to address in-season issues. The Panthers’ depth at forward has taken a notable hit, with youngster Mason Marchment moving on as an unrestricted free agent to the Dallas Stars, and more of an emphasis on young players on the third and fourth lines. Zito did add to his defensive depth with the UFA signing of veteran Marc Staal, and has Staal’s brother, Eric, on a professional tryout contract. But there’s still a sense Florida’s top players are going to have to do more of the heavy lifting this season.
The Panthers will be on a collision course with Tampa Bay this season. Both the Bolts and Panthers will be playoff teams, and they could face each other in the second round for the second consecutive year. Zito is likely to tweak his team by the trade deadline, and he’ll be ultimately held accountable if they once again fail to advance to the Eastern Conference Final and beyond. Panthers owner Vincent Viola wants to see improvement, and though it’s hard to be better in the regular season than Florida was last year – they were, in fact, the NHL’s best regular-season squad, with only 18 regulation-time losses (58-18-6) – but it really is all about the playoffs. And if the Panthers have a letdown for the third straight season under Zito, Viola may choose to seek out and hire a brand new architect for his team.