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What the Maple Leafs can learn from Bill Zito’s time with the Panthers

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Photo credit:Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 month ago
When talking about how the Maple Leafs should be like the Florida Panthers the assumption is often that the narrative is about how the Leafs need to be tougher. And sure, maybe that is true, but between the Panthers, Golden Knights, Oilers, Avalanche, Lightning, and any number of successful teams in recent years, you can see how all of these teams have been built differently. Arguably there are a lot of similarities between how the Oilers are built and the way the Leafs are built (attitudes and culture are another discussion), it’s just clear the playoff results from McDavid and Draisaitl are significantly better than what the Leafs have received from Matthews and Marner. Both the Oilers and the Avs have proven that model can work.
No, this isn’t about what type of team to build it is about how Bill Zito has gone about doing it, and that has often been through a shrewd analytics-driven approach that has limited loyalty to roster incumbents and prioritized what the evidence has said is best for the Florida Panthers.
The first year that Bill Zito took over as GM for the Panthers he did an excellent job of identifying underappreciated talent. Sam Bennett, Carter Verhaeghe, Brandon Montour, Anthony Duclair, and Mason Marchment were all brought in on his watch and not surprisingly the Panthers improved.
The next year, he brought in Sam Reinhart at the cost of a top goaltending prospect and a first-round pick at a time when Sam Reinhart’s numbers weren’t what they are today, and throughout the season which saw the Panthers go on a President’s Trophy run, he swung for the fences once more and brought in Claude Giroux to help push the Panthers over the top. That didn’t exactly go as planned, but Zito willingly sacrificed Owen Tippett as part of the deal to make his team better, not accepting that the President’s Trophy roster was good enough.
What came next is really the important lesson to learn about Bill Zito. Despite having a President’s Trophy-winning team and every reason to believe that running it back would yield competitive results for the Panthers, Zito did not accept the status quo.
Firing Andrew Brunette was a head-scratcher of a decision, especially when he was replaced by Paul Maurice, a coach who looked to be done with the NHL after his exit from the underwhelming Jets. And to then follow it up by trading Jonathan Huberdeau, who was coming off a 115-point season, as part of a package to bring in Matthew Tkachuk was unquestionably bold, especially when you consider that Mackenzie Weegar, a first, and a prospect to get Tkachuk. Bill Zito wasn’t afraid to pay the price to get his guy, and while you can’t say that two Stanley Cup Finals appearances are completely the result of bringing in Tkachuk and Maurice, Bill Zito’s willingness to not only tinker with a successful team but to in fact overhaul it by dealing picks, prospects, top-pairing defencemen, and 115-point forwards might be a lesson worth learning.
Now Bill Zito has also benefited from some improved goaltending and being able to stick by Sergei Bobrovsky instead of having to find a way to clear out his $10M AAV contract has been a win. And having a healthy Aaron Ekblad for the last two playoffs has also been a fortunate turn of events. Some stars aligned for Bill Zito and the Panthers but work was put in by the GM.
I’m willing to bet that most GMs believe that they do not accept the status quo and are reluctant to take away the true learnings from Bill Zito’s approach. The first is that Bill Zito does his homework. He is one of the best analytical minds in the game and understands who he needs to be successful and who he can move on from to achieve success. It’s not a surprise that Huberdeau and Weegar were dealt with one year left on their contracts. Bill Zito was staring down having to re-sign two players for raises that he didn’t get the results he wanted. He also made the decision to let Mason Marchment go rather than pay for an effective but potentially expensive complimentary player, and it’s just as likely we’ll see him make some tough decisions on Sam Reinhart and Brandon Montour no matter how the Stanley Cup Finals play out.
It’s also worth pointing out that Bill Zito being an analytics guy hasn’t impacted the Panthers’ toughness. Good numbers and hard-hitting aren’t mutually exclusive.
The other lesson to learn from Bill Zito is that GMs need to stop being so risk-averse. Bill Zito proved that with good information you can make smart gambles and by betting on Matthew Tkachuk, Paul Maurice, and others he has made his team even better.
The biggest question is whether the Leafs can pull off what Bill Zito has been able to do. Brad Treliving certainly isn’t the analytics guy that Zito is even if he has an appreciation for the roster that has been built in Florida. With Treliving’s mind combined with that of Brandon Pridham and the Leafs’ Research and Development team under Darryl Metcalf, there might be the opportunity for Brad Treliving to set a vision, the Leafs front office can identify who helps them achieve it, and Toronto can aggressively build the team they want rather than tinker with the team they have.

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