Bill Zito epitomizes the Panthers’ ‘no ego’ mentality — and has them looking like contenders

Bill Zito calls it a “privilege” to be where he is right now. He’s wrapping up his fourth season with the Florida Panthers, who are in the midst of yet another deep playoff run. He is turning the franchise into a perennial Stanley Cup contender.

And he has the fortune of knowing he will have the opportunity to continue seeing his grand plan unfold after the Panthers in April announced they signed their general manager to a multiyear extension and gave him a title promotion to president of hockey operations.

“There’s obviously always the practical part of the stability, right?” Zito said. “For my family, it’s a big deal. It’s also my responsibility to be better and to make sure that we give everything to the organization that we can.”

Zito has done that so far.

But just like the team he has crafted, don’t look for him to be asking for any credit for what has unfolded during his tenure.

Throughout a 25-minute interview with the Miami Herald on Monday ahead of the Panthers’ Eastern Conference final series against the New York Rangers, Zito made sure to credit just about everyone around him in the organization for the Panthers getting to this point under his watch.

First and foremost, there’s the Viola family, which has given Zito anything and everything he has needed to turn his vision into reality.

Then there is the coaching staff, led by veteran bench boss Paul Maurice whose veteran presence and “significant level of emotional intelligence” has helped get the most out of his players.

There are the scouts who work behind the scenes who let him know with conviction when they have a player on their radar who they believe will help the team — and more often than not have been right.

There are the players in a unified dressing room led by the yin-and-yang combination of Aleksander Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk — the former a Panthers mainstay since before Zito arrived, the latter one of Zito’s biggest acquisitions during his tenure with Florida.

He even praised his predecessor, Dale Tallon, who Zito said “doesn’t get enough credit” for the foundation that was left at Zito’s disposal, which made it easier for Zito to hit the ground running with implementing his long-term plan for success and made the timeline to get to this point “a little easier than people might think.”

“There’s no ego,” Zito said.

That’s a theme throughout the organization, with nearly everyone deflecting credit and praise toward someone else, who will eventually do the same in what is seemingly a never-ending circle.

The fact is, the Panthers aren’t concerned about who gets credit. Their focus is getting to the point where they can finally hoist a Stanley Cup and be in a position to compete for it year after year.

But whether he accepts the praise or not, it took until Zito’s arrival for the Panthers to finally get to that place — and now he is in place to keep pushing the process forward.

“From his first day as a Panther, Bill has demonstrated his complete commitment to success both on and off the ice,” Panthers owner Vincent Viola said when the organization announced Zito’s extension. “He has worked steadfastly and tirelessly to establish a new standard of excellence for our franchise. The future has never looked brighter in South Florida and we are thrilled that Bill will continue to lead the way.”

Florida Panthers general manager Bill Zito, at left, introduces new coach Paul Maurice and his team jersey during a press conference at the FLA Live Arena in Sunrise Florida on Thursday, June 23, 2022.
Florida Panthers general manager Bill Zito, at left, introduces new coach Paul Maurice and his team jersey during a press conference at the FLA Live Arena in Sunrise Florida on Thursday, June 23, 2022.

‘How can we do better?’

Nearly every conversation with Zito seems to find its way back to one central talking point: “How can we do better?”

It’s not asked in a way to suggest the Panthers aren’t doing enough. They have steadily improved each year under Zito, reaching the Stanley Cup Finals last season and having a chance to do so again this season.

Rather, it’s in Zito’s inquisitive nature to find ways to maximize the production of every facet of the organization.

“The driver is he’s incredibly smart,” Maurice said. “He’s very curious. He asks a lot of questions, so that’s the underlying capacity. Bill’s connected to every single piece of this. He completely defers to you in the end, but asks you questions in a positive way. … He kind of brings an energy every single day. He is tireless. His ability to focus on details for hours on end, have one discussion and then move onto another one, and have that capacity to stay on task-most of us, we need a nap and he’s on question two.”

In his role, Zito has to have a hand in every part of hockey operations. He needs to know what is going on in every department. He also needs to trust they are doing their job and give them the confidence that they are doing their job correctly.

When there are decisions to be made, he listens to all sides and, collectively, the group comes up with a decision.

“The discussion is really healthy,” Zito said. “They work and they work and they work and they consider what everybody else has to say.”

Forward Matthew Tkachuk (left) and Florida Panthers General Manager Bill Zito speak at a Florida Panthers introductory press conference at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, Florida on Monday, July 25, 2022.
Forward Matthew Tkachuk (left) and Florida Panthers General Manager Bill Zito speak at a Florida Panthers introductory press conference at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, Florida on Monday, July 25, 2022.

‘He’s got a plan’

While players don’t interact as often with management as they do with their teammates or their coaches, what Zito has done to build the organization up isn’t lost on the team.

“He’s doing something really good here,” defenseman Gustav Forsling said. “He’s got a plan, for sure.”

Forsling is one of the many success stories during Zito’s reign. At the urging of his scouting department, Zito took a flier and acquired Forsling off waivers ahead of the 2020-21 season, Zito’s first year in charge of the Panthers. Forsling has since gone on to become one of the top under-the-radar defensemen in the NHL and signed an eight-year extension in March.

It’s just one of the many shining examples of Zito’s overhaul of the Panthers’ roster which is now one of the most complete teams in the league. When at full strength (which it is heading into the conference final), Florida’s roster has 15 playoff-caliber forwards for 12 lineup spots and nine defensemen for six spots. That leaves a half-dozen players sitting out on game day.

Some of those players Zito has brought in were expected to be big names — Tkachuk being the headliner of that category. Others, like Carter Verhaeghe and Sam Bennett, began to thrive after a change of scenery and an increased role. Others still, like the defensemen trio of Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Dmitry Kulikov and Niko Mikkola, were brought in to fill a specific void, namely improving Florida’s penalty kill and helping offset the early absences of Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour to begin this season.

“Bill’s done a great job,” said forward Nick Cousins, who signed a two-year deal with the Panthers ahead of the 2022-23 season and has adapted to various roles over the past two seasons. “He’s brought in high-character people and people that are team-first and I think that’s the most important. Guys really, truly are happy for other guys on the team’s success. When you have that, it’s infectious and it bleeds into the rest of your locker room.”

The franchise’s evolution has been especially noticeable for the team’s longest mainstays. Barkov and Ekblad have seen all of the ups and downs throughout the past decade-plus of the organization. They appreciate the stability and the direction in which the franchise is heading.

“What Bill has been doing on and off the ice is incredible,” Barkov said. “It’s an unreal place to be right now.”

Added Ekblad: “They’ve been giving us the tools and the opportunity for a while now. ... When you get that kind of response from the leadership in the organization, it’s great to have that.”

There’s the praise again for Zito.

But Zito’s perspective? It goes back to the players to heeding the call, executing and buying in.

“It’s a really energizing atmosphere to be in,” Zito said, “and I think at the risk of sounding dramatic — but it’s a good word for this — it’s inspiring. You can inspire people to want to be better based on what you do. They tend to get the best out of each other.”

They’ve been getting the best out of each other all year, and it has brought the Panthers one step closer to their ultimate goal.