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Zito’s Veto: Panthers GM has yet to spend big on free agency

Jun 7, 2024; Sunrise, Florida, USA; Florida Panthers general manager Bill Zito speaks to reporters during media day in advance of the 2024 Stanley Cup Final at Amerant Bank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

For hockey fans, July 1 is one of the most exciting days of the year. After months of
speculation and armchair general managing, the fans and media feast on a frenzy of
free agent signings in a matter of minutes. Owners and general managers spend
millions of dollars on available players — most of which are past their prime production

It’s a day that can deliver excitement and optimism to a fan base, but just as equally
end in disappointment and disgruntlement. Each organization and general manager
have a different approach when free agency opens. Some feel the pressure to spend
big because of their market or others because of where they feel their team is in the
ultimate quest for a Stanley Cup. Is it a rebuild? A retool? A tweak? Or is it all based on
cap space? Sometimes even the cap floor.

In four years as the Florida Panthers primary rostering decision-maker, Bill Zito has elected to
take a completely different and somewhat novel approach. He spends a little money
and gives out a few contracts with term, but he has yet to hand out a bag. For a guy that
has shown an affinity for taking big swings on the trade market and re-signing core
players to long-term extensions, Zito has elected to put his eggs in a lot of different
baskets on the open market.

Minimum salary players looking for opportunity — that’s one basket. Players coming off
buyouts or injuries at a cut-rate deal — that’s another basket. Waiver claims — definitely
a basket he places a few eggs in each year.

But for the premium free agents? No, no. Zito guards his eggs. He finds the baskets that
nobody is looking for and drops a few eggs in at a time.

It has proven to be a wise and calculated approach to constructing a Stanley Cup
champion roster. In the 2023 offseason, the Pittsburgh Penguins spent a lot of money
trying to fix its blue line. In addition to the trade that brought in high-dollar, highlight reel
defenseman Erik Karlsson, the new Penguins front office led by Kyle Dubas signed
Ryan Graves to a seven-year deal worth $27 million. J.T. Compher pulled in $25.5
million from Detroit and Steve Yzerman with a five-year contract. Pat Verbeek of the
Anaheim Ducks forked up $37 million to bring in Alex Killorn and Radko Gudas as veteran
leaders for his young team.

The Penguins, Red Wings, and Ducks failed to make the playoffs.

Last year, Zito and the Panthers finally had some cap space to work with for the first
time in his tenure. And he did go big. Well, for him. He signed two players to multi-year
contracts — Niko Mikkola for three years with a total purse of $7.5 million and Evan
Rodrigues with a four-year agreement and $12 million total. Rodrigues’ was the richest
and longest free agent contract the Panthers have dished out under Zito.

All Rodrigues did was score four goals in the Finals and become the first ‘Evan’ to have
his name etched on the Stanley Cup.

Zito learned his lesson going for headlines at deadline a few years ago, but his regime
has always had a grasp on free agency. The Panthers aren’t just frugal, they are a
hockey revitalization operation — an incubator for players looking to improve their
game, grow their value, and win in the process. The weight that Brad Treliving feels in
Toronto or Dubas in Pittsburgh or Yzerman in Detroit — to make significant, bold moves
in free agency — isn’t felt in Sunrise. That’s not because of the sunny beaches, warm
weather, and state tax benefits. It is because Zito has stuck to a philosophy.

Since free agency opened at the beginning of the month, Zito has signed one player to
a multi-year contract. One. And it was fourth line energy winger A.J. Greer.
The Panthers weren’t in on any of the big names and that isn’t just because the core is
intact, and the team is coming off a Cup win. The Panthers have rarely been connected
to the premier free agents. Zito simply isn’t going to play that game.

In his five cracks at free agency, the Panthers have signed only seven unrestricted free
agents outside of the organization to multi-year deals and only one, Rodrigues, has
eclipsed three years in term.

The total term on the initial contracts for Ryan Lomberg, Carter
Verhaeghe, Will Lockwood, Gudas, Mikkola, Rodrigues, and Greer was 18 years and the
financial commitment was $33.7 million.

This offseason alone, Nashville coughed up $108.5 million over 16 years combined
between Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Marchessault, and Brady Skjei.

The strategy of spend may work out for the Predators, but Zito effectively proved
that paying top dollar for free agents on July 1 isn’t the only way to attract talent. In fact,
Zito’s model and the Panthers’ success may end up rewriting free agency as we know it
in the near future. He’s completely bucked the system and trained a fan base to be
excited about the potential growth in the Boqvist brothers, the opportunistic energy of
Greer, and the stabilizing presence of Nate Schmidt for a near minimum salary deal.

In years past, these moves would be seen as scraping the bottom of the barrel and
likely met with pessimism and doubt. Zito has vetoed conventional thinking with round
after round of success on the value market. The argument can be made that Bill Zito is
currently the best general manager in hockey and possibly all professional sport
leagues across North America.

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