The Florida Panthers are preparing to face the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Even the most diehard Panthers fans could not have imagined this version of the Cats would go this deep into the tournament.
Let’s take a look at how the Panthers have reworked their roster with the assets that GM Bill Zito inherited when he was hired by the team in September of 2020, and how his vision has the team in the third round.
Full disclosure, before I get started breaking down how the Panthers’ current roster was assembled, I want to note that I was the assistant head scout in Florida from 2011-2016 and then the director of amateur scouting from 2016-2020.
Ask any NHL general manager if they would like to walk into a job that includes the following names as part of their core:
Your core can only take you so far, though. Teams need to surround that group with proper support. Here are some secondary names who Zito inherited when he arrived in Florida:
When Zito took over for former GM Dale Tallon he inherited nine picks to utilize in his first draft. The results were positive. Here are some key assets selected by the Panthers under Zito in 2020:
Note: The Panthers’ draft board was also flush with all of their first- and second-round picks for 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025 available to be used in trades or to select players at the draft.
INVESTMENT IN HOCKEY OPERATIONS
Since Zito took his seat in the GM chair, the Panthers have expanded the size of their hockey operations staff and they now have one of the most robust front offices in the NHL. Including their assistant general managers, advisers, pro scouts, amateur scouts, player development, data scientists, and goaltending excellence department, they have a total of 40 employees in hockey operations including the GM.
For context, the previous regime was only provided a budget to employ a grand total of 25 hockey operations positions.
TRADING FOR CHANGE
Zito and his staff had a new vision of how they wanted the Panthers roster to look and perform, so they have been extremely aggressive on the trade front. Here are some of the more notable transactions the organization made in the past three years:
• The Panthers were “all-in” last season, their Presidents’ Trophy-winning campaign. They gave up a ton of prospect depth and draft capital in their attempt to contend for a Stanley Cup.
• The irony is the Panthers had marginal playoff success in 2022, winning only one round over Washington before being swept in the second round by Tampa Bay. They entered last off-season with an almost bare draft board and near the ceiling of the salary cap. They had to “retool” on the fly.
• Looking back on the Ben Chiarot trade with the Montreal Canadiens, the organization has avoided potential embarrassment by going on a deep playoff run this season. The Panthers barely made the playoffs this spring by the slimmest of margins — one point! — and since the first-rounder they gave up to Montreal wasn’t lottery protected, this really could have ended up badly. As it stands now the pick will fall between slot 29 and 32.
FUTURE DRAFT CAPITAL
• This is what a draft board looks like when a team is all in on attempting to win a Stanley Cup. The Panthers sacrificed the majority of their early round draft slots acquiring players such as Chiarot, Claude Giroux, Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, and Matthew Tkachuk
BLOCKBUSTER WITH CALGARY
There is no denying that the trade Zito pulled off with the Calgary Flames last summer took a ton of confidence. This group of Panthers is the grittiest it has ever been. It’s incredible how adding a player like Tkachuk has changed the identity of the forward group as a whole. In case you forgot how the trade broke down, here it is:
The immediate return has been outstanding for Florida. Tkachuk was a Hart Trophy finalist this season. This trade, so far, has a chance to go down as the most exciting transaction in Panthers history.
Note: I fully expect Huberdeau and Weegar to elevate their games next year following the coaching change in Calgary. Cole Schwindt is a solid prospect who projects as a third-line NHL forward in time, and let’s not discount the fact that the Panthers gave up another first-round pick in the transaction).
I personally worked in hockey operations for the Panthers from 2011-2020 and under the previous regime led by Tallon, we built a group of assets that got close to getting over the hump, but didn’t quite get there.
Zito and his staff took a massive chance last off-season when they traded out two major pieces of their core. It took guts and they are enjoying a long playoff run, in part, due to the risk.
The organization might still take a step back when their lack of draft capital starts to hurt them down the road. Some of their trades have time to age as well. For instance, Owen Tippett might become a 35-plus goal scorer in Philadelphia and Devon Levi looks like the future starting goalie in Buffalo.
But the bottom line is the Panthers find themselves in the final four of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and they might even end up being the last team standing.
I’d say it’s been worth the investment.