Terms have apparently been reached with a new Florida Panthers general manager. After a brief-but-intense search — that featured high-end names like Mike Gillis, Peter Chiarelli, and Eddie Olczyk — the Panthers have agreed to terms with an out-of-left-field name… Bill Zito. Zito is a former attorney, turned agent, turned AHL-general manager, turned Colombus Blue Jackets associate-GM. While he was an agent, he represented stars like Tuukka Rask, Tim Thomas, and Kimmo Timonen. He’s been the Cleveland Monsters GM for five years. During that time, the Monsters won one championship and made the playoffs one other time.
But this is Zito’s first time being in the thick of things, as a stand-alone NHL GM. He’s taking the reigns of one of the most challenging situations in the league. While he is an experienced agent of 18 years, and AHL GM of five years, this is definitely going to mark a bit of a new world for Zito. And his to-do list is very, very daunting.
The To-Do List for the Florida Panthers General Manager
1.) Cut Salary. Now.
The top priority for the new Florida Panthers general manager will be to immediately cut salary. In January, the owners of the Panthers notified then-GM Tallon that he needed to cut $10 million in salary by the 2020-21 season.
It’s this demand that led to what many few as a very lopsided trade, that sent Vincent Trocheck to the Carolina Hurricanes. But Trochek was only scheduled to make, on average, $4.875 million in salary over the last two years of his contract. That means that the Panthers still have an additional $5.125 million to clear… and that’s assuming the Covid-19 shutdown didn’t hurt their money situation even more.
If COVID-19 did take its toll on the Panthers, the team might look completely different next year. Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov are both pending-free agents whose salary would just nearly account for the second half of the $10 million that needs to be voided. In an effort to stay competitive, it’s likely that the Panthers simply re-sign whichever will take the cheaper deal. They’re both high-scoring, shoot-first wingers and will battle for pricing. If one agrees to bend to the Panthers money situation, he’ll surely be the one to stay.
But that can’t be the end of the story. With COVID-19 hurting businesses across the world, there’s no doubting Florida is in a bit more of a bind. Could the additional money loss force their hand into dealing away high-earners like Aleksander Barkov or Aaron Ekblad? And how will the grim salary-restraint affect the team’s re-signing of pending-FAs like Erik Haula, Brian Boyle, Mark Pysyk, or MacKenzie Weegar?
It’s a bad situation for anyone to be in, much less a brand new GM in their first general manager position. They’ll be faced with some of the hardest negotiations in the league, backed by an overbearing owner group.
2.) Raise Attendance
It’s no secret that the Panthers aren’t in the best situation in terms of the business side of things. If it wasn’t already apparent enough, the team’s call for a voiding of $10 million in salary speaks volumes. Florida is struggling. And while there shouldn’t be talk of relocation or anything of the sorts, the writing is slowly appearing on the wall.
The Panthers had an average attendance of 14,105 this year, the fifth-lowest in their 27-year history. It was a slight boost from the previous two years, which saw an average of 13,557 between the two years, but not much of one at all. Attendance in Sunrise has been falling since 2015-16. Not even the exciting Wild Card race Florida was enthralled in could fix that.
The new GM needs to find a way to fix this quickly. While attendance numbers aren’t the only way to make money, an average increase of two-or-three-thousand would be substantial.
There’s one clear-cut way to guarantee good attendance: get a lot of season-ticket holders. Unfortunately, that may not work out too well for Florida. In 2018, season-ticket holders complained about new changes made to the format. The Panthers shifted things around to require season-ticket holders to now pay over $400-per-seat for parking, for the whole year. This caused some groups or families to pay upwards of over-$1000 just to park at the games for the year. The team tried to remedy this by giving holders discounts in the team store and at concessions but many noted that the discounts were fairly negligible. The Panthers also cut the season-ticket holders’ “Cat Cash”, a monetary system that can be used on food and merchandise.
All-in-all, it was enough cuts to outrage fans. Many season-ticket holders of decades said they had now soured on the team. Some even mentioned that they didn’t feel like the benefits of season-tickets were worth it anymore — now that parking wasn’t free — because simply purchasing tickets on a service like StubHub would amount to cheaper year-long spending.
For a team that was clearly cutting corners wherever possible, this was the worst possible reaction. The Panthers need to prioritize keeping their most loyal fans happy, simply to guarantee consistent income. That’ll surely be a priority for the new Florida Panthers general manager. Better marketing of star players like Barkov and Ekblad also seems crucial. Right now, neither player has the league-wide reputation they deserve, thanks to a bit of a dry Florida media pool. The new GM could find a lot of monetary-success if he can polarize the stars appropriately. Either way, it’ll be a tricky hill to climb; and one that’s far from the on-ice ordeals.
3.) Stay Competitive but… Fix the Pool
There is no beating around the bush. The Florida Panthers have one of the worst prospect pools in the entire NHL. If it weren’t for teams like the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, Florida might very well bear the title themself.
Spencer Knight is incredible and seemingly bound for stardom in net but he doesn’t have much in the way of a supporting cast. Owen Tippett has fallen far from the expectations fans had for him when he was drafted. While still a good prospect, he’s not likely for the stardom that Florida needs. The same underwhelming narrative can be laid out for Henrik Borgstrom, who doesn’t seem to be reaching the top-nine anytime soon. The only other top-end potential lies in Gregori Denisenko, who performed alright for his age in the KHL.
Aside from those three, there’s not exactly a name that sticks out in Florida’s pool. Maxim Mamin is alright but he’s 25 and isn’t producing as much as hoped in the KHL. Aleksi Heponiemi has a promising future but clearly needs a few years to develop before his NHL-expectations can be truly laid out. Aleksi Saarela has done well in the minors but hasn’t found his groove in the NHL. He might find a way to but some stay pessimistic.
Needless to say, it’s muddy. But Florida isn’t in any position to rebuild. With salary to shed and money desperately needed, voiding the roster to rebuild the pool is not at all an option. So the new GM needs to be excellent in the coming drafts. The next four NHL Drafts are absolutely filled with high-end talent that will revamp the league’s prospect pools. With smart drafting and efficient draft-minded moves, the Panthers could easily revamp things without sacrificing any top-end names.
Florida has playoff potential. They made the Qualifying Round this year and, with some help, could’ve easily made the First Round. Playoff hockey means playoff money — which is a LOT of money — so making the playoffs (for only the third time in the last 20 years) needs to happen.
It’s a double-edged sword. Stay sharp but win every draft.
The Long Road Ahead
It’s going to be an uphill battle for Bill Zito, a road he has to face in his first-ever GM role. Seeing how Florida evolves over the next few years is going to be very interesting. They’ll lie somewhere in the middle of two extremes: high-end playoffs and relocation. It all lies on the effectiveness of a first-time GM and a stingy, desperate owners group. But sometimes, fresh GMs and hard-headed owners can force change. That’ll surely be what happens in Florida… right?