Inside The Box: Time to give credit to Florida Panthers GM Bill Zito

Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad (center). Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad (center). Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports /

Inside The Box is Puck Prose’ daily news bulletin, covering all the latest news and providing unique analysis and insight, while highlighting the content you need in your lives.

It has been quite the start by the Florida Panthers who have been one of the biggest surprise stories of the 2020-21 NHL season so far and, on today’s Inside The Box, we’re going to give that team a little bit of love while giving General Manager Bill Zito some well-deserved credit too.

After all, if you critique a franchise when they do something wrong then you should praise them when they do something right, and we are in that territory with the Florida Panthers right now. After being somewhat of a stagnant franchise that excelled in mediocrity and played in front of sparse crowds, they appear to have turned the corner in 2020-21 and everything seems to be clicking into place.

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In the wake of going 35-26-8 in 2019-20 despite hiring three-time Stanley Cup Champion Joel Quenneville as their Head Coach and after giving goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky a ridiculous seven-year, $70 million contract, Ownership decided to clean house a little bit and proceeded to head in a new direction by hiring Bill Zito as their new General Manager.

Zito proceeded to retool this roster, making them tougher and grittier to play against, while adding some much-needed experience and leadership to a room that has probably lacked real direction over the last couple of years. He traded for two-time Stanley Cup champion and veteran Patric Hornqvist from the Pittsburgh Penguins, ridding himself of Mike Matheson‘s horrible contract in the process, while Zito also signed human wrecking ball defenseman Radko Gudas in Free Agency, in addition to also adding some unpolished gems in the like of forwards Anthony Duclair and Carter Verhaeghe.

Patric Hornqvist (70)
Florida Panthers right wing Patric Hornqvist (70). Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports /

Bill Zito and the Florida Panthers deserve a lot of praise right now

Hornqvist has made a huge difference on and off the ice with his leadership a real steadying influence on this team, while he has 10 points (6 G, 4 A) in 10 games while holding a 55.2 percent CF% and a stellar 67.2 percent oZS%. Gudas has come as advertised given that he has racked up 53 hits already this season in just 10 games, which is more than five hits per game, and Verhaeghe has been an absolute revelation with nine points (6 G, 3 A) in 10 games while developing a potent understanding with linemate Aleksander Barkok on Florida’s top line, who has four goals and seven assists for 11 points so far this year.

Even Duclair, who has yet to light the lamp this season, has been impressive with six assists and a CF% of 59.8 percent, and you have to think that once one goal goes in the floodgates will open up for the forward. The Panthers have also continued to get big production from the usual suspects in Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad, while Keith Yandle has seemingly established himself with this regime after it appeared that he would be traded earlier on in the year.

Those additions coupled with impressive play between the pipes from Chris Driedger who is 3-1-1 this year with a 1.97 Goals Against Average and a .937 Save Percentage, has helped the Panthers to a hugely impressive 7-1-2 start and they currently sit second in the Central Division behind the Tampa Bay Lightning, with those two teams set to faceoff in what is a huge battle tonight. One other key factor behind the Panthers’ great start has been their electric power play, which is currently operating at a 37.0 percent clip, ranked second in the NHL.

Anthony Duclair (91)
Anthony Duclair #91 of the Florida Panthers. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

You have to also give a lot of credit to Joel Quenneville who is getting the best out of this group and putting them in the best possible situations in which to succeed, while helping his new General Manager to create what seems to be a new culture in the Sunshine State that every single player is buying into and the results speak for themselves. The Panthers just look different this year and Quenneville has finally been able to stamp his mark on this team and implement the systems that have worked so well for him in the past, while he has veterans in the likes of Hornqvist and Gudas that he can lean on to help get his message across.

Now, granted, the Panthers have been a stellar team on the power play but they’ve been average at 5-on-5, being bailed out by goaltending and their defense with an Expected Goals Against of 7.4. On the flip side, they have a shooting percentage of 6.3 percent at even-strength which is way below the league average of 8.0 percent. Therefore, you have to think that Florida’s elite production on the power play will regress somewhat, so they will need to sharpen up their play at 5-on-5 and become more clinical if they are to maintain this hot start.

However, in what is a mishmash of a Central Division with the Tampa Bay Lightning the only real elite standout team, the Florida Panthers have the pieces and the weapons to be able to secure one of the four Playoff spots come the end of the season, and it would be surprising at this point if they were not a postseason team. For now, though, it is impressive to see what is going on in Sunshine State and a lot of credit and praise has to go to General Manager Bill Zito who has made some subtle tweaks to this roster that have paid off hugely so far, and he’s also changing the culture and the reputation of a franchise that was seemingly heading nowhere under its current regime. It is a small sample size but things do look different in Florida right now and the proof is in the pudding when you look at their play on the ice coupled with their current place in the standings.

Plus, having to navigate stretches without games due to COVID-19 outbreaks on other teams, the continued struggles of No. 1 goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky who has a 3.07 Goals Against Average and a .899S Save Percentage this year, plus the fact that the franchise were able to move past the whole Keith Yandle situation and appear to mend their relationship with the defenseman, life is off to a pretty good start for this new era of Florida Panthers hockey and it will be interesting to see what happens the rest of the way in 2020-21.

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