AP Interview: Panthers getting Zito era off to flying start

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — On the day the Florida Panthers opened training camp, they arrived at the arena, took their coronavirus tests, had some meetings, and hit the ice.

The routine hasn’t changed much since. There’s been no reason to switch things around.

The Panthers are still atop the NHL’s Central Division, rallying from a 2-0 deficit in the final minutes to beat the Dallas Stars 3-2 on Thursday night — improving to 6-0-0 after a loss this season. And what Florida points to as a key for the big start, more than anything else, is having simplicity and consistency in the way they’re going about their business on a day-to-day basis.

“To me, that’s the real story, our daily approach,” Panthers first-year general manager Bill Zito said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Every single day, nothing’s really changed. Other than we try to get better, and hopefully, we’re getting a little better at what it is that we want to do.”

The way Zito tells it, the Panthers are changing nothing. Truth is, they’re trying to change everything. Florida’s postseason drought is well known; no series wins since 1996, only four trips to the first round since that run to the Stanley Cup final a quarter-century ago.

Zito was brought in this season to help the never-ending process of trying to turn things around. The cards were stacked high against him; he came to a new franchise during a pandemic, with players trying to navigate an offseason program that had no end in sight, and nobody having a clue what this season would look like.

So far, so good: The Panthers are 13-4-2, the second-best 19-game start in franchise history. The only time they started better was 1995-96, the season in which they played for the Stanley Cup.

“We’ve learned so much about our players,” Zito said. “And truth be told, kudos has to go to the coaching staff. They’ve gotten these guys prepared to really perform individually at optimal levels, and more importantly, collectively to come together as a unit with new faces, new personalities, new playing styles, put them together, make them click in short order, get them to work together and to play for each other. It’s really been something to watch and a great, a great learning experience for me.”

Zito’s path to the Panthers was a circuitous one. He played hockey at Yale, studied law at Wisconsin and dabbled in coaching, eventually became an agent and then transitioned to front-office life with Columbus in 2013. When the Panthers parted ways with Dale Tallon after last season, they weren’t totally sure which direction they were headed in to fill the GM role.

An eight-hour meeting with Zito settled that.

“Practically speaking, the roster was pretty solid,” Zito said. “And you’ve got to give credit to Dale. It’s kind of fun to look out and see Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad. That’s a pretty good start. There were some very, very good players and a lot of them have been unheralded and gone unnoticed.”

He made tweaks, added players that have already become keys to Florida’s success like Patric Hornqvist, Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair. But the biggest selling point might have been the chance to work with a coach like Joel Quenneville, who has three Stanley Cup rings from his time in Chicago.

“It’s not lost on me at all,” Zito said. “I lived in Chicago when he came in and made the run and had a number of players play for him. So, that is a luxury for me that does not go unappreciated. I know it every single day. It’s funny, there’s been any number of instances where I’ve come in with an idea, and I’d go in and talk to him and I’ll leave the office and we’re going do the exact opposite because it wasn’t the right thing to do. I very, very much appreciate his patience and guidance. I learn every day.”

The rest of the NHL might be learning about the Panthers as well.

No opponent has a winning record against Florida this season; the Panthers are 4-2 against Detroit, 2-1 against Dallas and reigning Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay, 2-0 against Chicago, 1-0-1 against Nashville and Columbus and 1-0 against Carolina.

“I commend the players on the attitude,” Quenneville said. “I think there’s a there’s a consistent, basically, accountability amongst the players. From a coaching perspective, we couldn’t ask for a better situation.”

Zito doesn’t think he could have asked for a better front-office situation either.

And Thursday’s rally was just another example. These aren’t the same old Panthers.

“We have resilience,” Zito said. “They’ve answered the bell, whether it’s in game when they get down a couple goals or after they lose a game. There’s no quit.”

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More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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