How Bill Zito finally went from perpetual finalist to GM

Courtesy of the Florida Panthers

It's impossible to predict what's going to catch a child's attention. Bill Zito's daughter Gigi, for example, became mildly obsessed with one day owning a limousine.

"The 1980s-style Cadillac limo. Not the big stretch one, but just a regular Cadillac limo. She thinks it's one of the coolest things ever," Zito said.

As parents do, Zito made a promise to his 9-year-old: If one of his many interviews to become an NHL general manager ever resulted in him getting the job, he would buy her a Cadillac limo one day.

On Sept. 1, Zito was named the new general manager of the Florida Panthers, having served as Columbus Blue Jackets' assistant GM since 2013. With his family gathered in their living room, Zito broke the news by telling Gigi, "You're getting your limo."

After a brief moment of confusion, Zito's three children -- twin 9-year-old daughters and a 7-year-old son -- jumped on him, tumbling down to the floor, chanting "daddy's got a GM job!" while happy tears flowed.

Then, moments later and almost in unison, they stopped and asked: "Where?"

Julie Zito, his wife, responded: "Florida!"

The children didn't respond. "Their body language said '[forget] that ... we're not moving,'" Zito recalled with a laugh. "But we'll be fine."

Zito is confident in this because his children have had to deal with a lot of challenges in the past couple of years. Julie Zito was diagnosed with breast cancer last May. His sister, Maggy Schultz, died in January 2019 after having Hodgkin's disease, pancreatic cancer and breast cancer. His mother, Priscilla Zito, had a second bout of pancreatic cancer last year.

"My wife getting sick. My mom getting sick. My sister dying. They've had to grow up a little too much for kids their age," he said. "They're tough. They're resilient."

Resiliency runs in the family. Before Zito was hired by the Panthers, you could pencil in the 55-year-old executive's name onto any list of candidates for open general manager jobs. He was always an attractive option, having founded the Acme World Sports player agency before his run as assistant general manager and then vice president of hockey operations under GM Jarmo Kekalainen with the Blue Jackets.

"This is a guy that's paid his dues in a lot of different areas in the hockey business," said Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar, who worked under Zito while coaching the Blue Jackets' AHL affiliate. "Columbus was really hard to play against, and had a really strong identity. They were constantly bringing in guys that fit their system, without missing a beat. It's a well-earned promotion for Bill. He handled our team really well."

Zito and Bednar won the 2016 Calder Cup with the Lake Erie Monsters, which put the then-assistant GM on every team's radar. He interviewed with the Buffalo Sabres, Minnesota Wild, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, the expansion Seattle Kraken and others. He was linked with many other openings. In some cases, he make it through to the final few candidates, only to fall short of achieving his dream.

"Maybe I should start a consulting business," Zito said with a laugh. "Although maybe [that experience] is a poor a reflection on me."

Something was different this time with the Florida Panthers.

"There was an instant connection from the first moment we met," said team president Matthew Caldwell, who also called Zito "the most well-rounded candidate that we came across" and someone who "understands how to make a place a great destination for players to go to."

Zito was given a five-year contract to replace Dale Tallon, whose contract wasn't renewed. He took part in two rounds of interviews with the Panthers.

"You know when you spend time with people in life when you have a connection. A couple of times, I felt that way in the course of an interview. You were making ground: Someone would ask you a question, you'd respond, and then the follow-up would be based on your response, because maybe there was something unique that you had said," he said. "In this instance, I just felt everybody connect. Everybody in the room. Everyone was sharing and talking. At times we were contradicting and then calling each other out. It was enjoyable. The process was exhilarating."

Zito's primary interview with owner Vinny Viola, his son Michael Viola and Caldwell lasted roughly eight and a half hours. "I remember thinking 'God, am I tired,' but at the same time feeling emotionally great. When do you get to do an eight-hour overview of an NHL organization with an owner?" Zito said.

Since Zito ran the pro scouting with Columbus, he had a familiarity with the Florida roster. When the Panthers' job inquiry came in, he dove a little deeper, not only to be prepared for the eventual conversations but to find out "if I really wanted to talk to these guys. Because you might not, you know?"

Zito said Panthers management was well-prepared, too. The dance began: How much does a candidate give away in an interview that long?

"That's a great question, because I ain't giving away anything," Zito said with a laugh. "I worked for the Blue Jackets and I'll tell you what I think and I'll tell you conceptually how my brain works. But don't ask me about this, this and this. If you want it, write the check."

It was meant as a joke, but there was more than a little truth behind it: Zito was an integral part of Blue Jackets management, and they were allowing him to interview with a conference rival. "It's very clear they trust me. And you can trust me," he told the Panthers, "and if I betray them to you, then you're going to think I'm going to betray you. So I'm not going to."

Occasionally, Panthers brass would push Zito on some specifics. He'd respond that he couldn't get into them. Some on the Florida side of the conversation would blurt out "Jarmo!" like one would say "curses!" after being foiled.

"But you can get around the specifics," Zito said. "I don't think people care about what you think as much as they care about how you think."

Zito joins a braintrust that includes a three-time Stanley Cup champion in coach Joel Quenneville. He said he was always one person removed from Quenneville during their time in the NHL -- as a player agent, Zito lived in Chicago during the start of the Blackhawks' dynasty, with three clients playing for Chicago in 2010. They might have grabbed a beer in a group, he said, but didn't have the kind of personal relationship they'll have now.

"I look forward to getting to know him a lot better. I probably coached a lot of his players. I don't know if that's good or bad," Quenneville joked during a news conference last week. "We've certainly got a lot of things [to do]. We're looking forward to getting more familiar with each other in terms of what we are, what we're really looking for in identifying players and how we can get better."

Quenneville and Zito are essentially outsiders coming in to audit the organization. The coach has had a year to evaluate the roster and the system. Zito comes in with the backing of ownership to make the changes he feels are necessary to level them up. But that might not necessarily mean shipping a bunch of players out the door.

"A lot of things are what-ifs. If you can get Player A going -- who might be stagnated right now -- does that jump-start Player B as well? It's like gears, right? Get one turning and the machine starts working better. So the last thing I want to do is come in and be knee-jerk about it," Zito said. "But at the same time, it's our job to make prudent decisions. We'll arrive at the right decisions with the right amount of communication and collaboration. I'm very confident, because of the way we did it in Columbus. At the end of the day, we might be wrong. But I won't run in and say, 'Get rid of 'em!'"

For Zito, patience is a virtue, although it wasn't always that way. In a running joke between him and Julie, Zito wanted to buy the first house they were ever shown on the market. It actually informed a lesson he shared with his player clients as an agent: You gotta look at 20 houses. The scouts with the Blue Jackets had a philosophy: If you're not watching him 20 times, at least watch the player 10 times.

Patience might also be the only way to approach one of the more controversial aspects of the Panthers' current roster: their goaltending. Sergei Bobrovsky has a $10 million cap hit and a full no-move clause through the next four years of the six remaining on his contract. He struggled under the weight of that deal in posting just a .900 save percentage in his first season in Florida after seven with Columbus.

"I'm not worried about him at all. He's a really intuitive guy, really bright. He'll figure it out. And he wants to win," said Zito, who called Bobrovsky before being announced as the new GM. He's since leaned on the former Blue Jacket for information and insight about his new team.

While Bobrovsky is gobbling up significant cap space, Zito takes over a team with just 13 players under contract for next season and over $20.9 million in open space under the flat $81.5 million salary cap. He's on the record admiring some of them -- captain Aleksander Barkov, in particular -- but one assumes there will be changes. This is a franchise in desperate need of postseason success.

Although the Panthers played in the 24-team postseason tournament in the NHL's restarted season, they were eliminated by the New York Islanders in four games. They've made the conference quarterfinals once since 2012, and just five times in franchise history dating back to 1993-94. They only season they advanced past the first round was when they went to the Stanley Cup Final, back in 1996.

Zito was asked how his tenure was going to be any different from the general managers who came before him.

"It's by definition, right? No one's the same. I can just tell you how I'm going to be: With a dedication to hard work, a commitment to doing this, to work harder than anybody else," he said. "When we were interviewing, I told [the Panthers] we're going to have a '100% Rule.' I'm going to ask 100% from the players. In turn, I'm going to give you 100% as a general manager, and do everything I can to help this team win."

Zito waited too long for this opportunity to give anything less.