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Florida Panthers 2022-23 Season: The Bill Zito Masterclass

Every single game matters in the NHL. The regular season features 82 per team, yet none should be taken lightly. For the Florida Panthers, one game separated them from a postseason appearance and the lack thereof. To their benefit, they won just enough to qualify for the playoffs. The rest is history, as they rode momentum straight to the Stanley Cup Final. Despite their position today, plenty of doubters and detractors exist (mostly within the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes fanbases, unsurprisingly). No one can deny the recipe for success that brewed, no matter how long it took to click this year. And look no further than the head chef who concocted this recipe; this year was a masterclass from General Manager Bill Zito.

Panthers GM Bill Zito Orchestrated an Absolutely Excellent Season

Wind the clock back one year, when the Panthers lost in round two of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They got swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning, who went on to win the Eastern Conference for a third consecutive season. Bill Zito accomplished a lot that year, between winning the President’s Trophy and then winning the franchise’s first playoff series since 1996.

Those successes turned plenty of heads toward the Panthers as a legitimate contender going forward. They qualified for the playoffs in three consecutive seasons, performing marginally better in each run.

Sewing the Seeds – Summer of 2022

Even then, though, Bill Zito saw a need to make a significant shake-up to push further. So last summer, he executed one of the biggest trades in recent memory. Franchise cornerstone Jonathan Huberdeau, coming off a team-leading 115-point season, as well as top pair defenceman MacKenzie Weegar, got traded out. They also moved a prospect and first round pick out with them in the move.

In return, they acquired Matthew Tkachuk from the Calgary Flames. The hockey world stood shocked, and many saw it as an overpay from Florida. They just won the President’s Trophy, so plenty saw it as an unnecessary risk that could disrupt their success more than Tkachuk could make up for.

Beyond the blockbuster trade, Bill Zito also replaced interim head coach Andrew Brunette with Paul Maurice. Brunette guided the team to their first-place finish and to the second round of the postseason. He finished as a Jack Adams award finalist, too. Yet, Zito felt the team needed a different voice and saw Maurice as the right fit.

Weathering the Storm – October through January

For most of the year, all these moves looked for naught. Their advanced metrics looked great, always in the top third of the league. They typically outshot their opponents and on most nights won the possession battle, with higher expected goals for than against.

Yet, for months, those underlying numbers never translated into the numbers that truly matter. Their goaltenders struggled to post good numbers while Maurice’s systems took a long time to produce success. In late January, they sat at a disappointing 23-22-6, with a double-digit point gap between themselves and a playoff spot.

Sticking to their Guns – February and March

Between that day and the NHL Trade Deadline, Florida went 7-5-0. They sat on the outside looking in, and plenty of people expected them to become “sellers”. Sam Bennett and Sam Reinhart, amongst other names, were featured on “trade deadline bait boards” on various news outlets.

In response, Bill Zito did absolutely nothing. He stood by his team, his decisions, and his belief that this group was the right group. Not only did he choose not to deal any roster pieces, but he opted to buy nothing too. He doubled down and stood pat, feeling that to be the right direction for the franchise.

In return, the team responded with the results they lacked all year long. Their metrics finally translated, and a 12-5-2 run after the deadline squeaked them into the final Wild Card spot. The rest is history.

Bill Zito Shaking the Nay-Sayers

Plenty of common tropes swirl from other team’s fans to try and take away from Florida’s run. For every single one, though, an obvious answer exists. The bitterness of other fanbases persists, but the Panthers don’t seem to care. After all, they’re in the Stanley Cup Final while everyone else hits the links.

Call & Response

“They only qualified because the Pittsburgh Penguins blew it at the end of the season.” The NHL season length hasn’t changed since 1995-96. Every game matters; writing a team off because they sat one game from missing the playoffs undermines the entire format. The 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings won the Cup as a Wild Card team, too. Don’t forget, the NHL is the toughest sport to predict for a reason, and this is nothing new.z

“The Panthers are just lucky, they won in spite of Bill Zito, not thanks to him.” Florida still won 42 games this season, and no team on the outside topped that number. They scored the fifth-most goals out of the entire league, had a top-ten powerplay, finished third in Corsi percentage at five-on-five, and led the league in expected goals. If anything, this team was massively unluckyThey ranked amongst the best of the best in all those metrics, and still needed a huge push at the end of the year just to squeak into the playoffs.

Bill Zito Changed the Florida Panthers Narrative

Bill Zito saw all these advanced metrics and underlying numbers as signs of life. And not just any life, but really, really good life. It takes a couple quick searches to find all these numbers, yet fans still like to undermine Florida.

Goaltending, too, deserves tons of credit. Between Alex Lyon surging at the end of the year to help them squeak in, and Sergei Bobrovsky playing the best hockey of his NHL playoff career, the Cats goalies came up huge at the right time. Bill Zito has his hand in this, too. Maurice’s system made the team better in the defensive zone, aiding their goalies by preventing high-danger chances. Plus, Zito established a Goaltending Excellence Department, to provide their franchise with state-of-the-art goalie support.

The franchise has been the league’s punching bag for the last quarter century, but things certainly won’t look that way much longer. It is time the hockey world puts some respect on the Panthers’ name, all thanks to Bill Zito. Give the man the GM of the Year award already, it’s a foregone conclusion at this point.

Main Photo: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports


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