Zito plugging correct personnel into Quenneville's schematic
One of the NHL’s adages is that it is easier to fire a coach than turnover a roster. But when the struggling team is coached by multiple-Stanley Cup winning Joel Quenneville, the most productive approach is to find players who fit into his coaching style.
That appears to be what first-year general manager Bill Zito concluded after he took over the Florida Panthers program in the offseason.
Zito made significant alterations to the roster and the result has been the second-best start in franchise history and the creation of more national buzz than we are used to seeing coming out of Sunrise, Florida.
While trophies are not awarded for a strong 18-game start, it is nonetheless noteworthy that the Panthers have the NHL’s second-best winning percentage when 11 NHL teams have already completed a third of their 56-game schedule.
This season, the Florida team is much more difficult to play against, evidenced by the fact that they rank fifth in the NHL with an average of 24.61 hits per 60 minutes, compared to last season’s rank of 27th at just over 17 hits per 60 minutes. This season, the Panthers are also tied for second with 7.57 takeaways per game.
Going into the season, the Panthers’ odds of winning the Stanley Cup were +4767, according to sportsbettingdime.com. Today, their odds are at +2567. People have noticed the Panthers’ improvement.
The Panthers’ core group, including Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, etc., remains intact, but 13 new defensemen and forwards have played for the Panthers this season.
Players brought in by Zito include defenseman Radko Gudas who leads the NHL today with 98 hits, and Patric Hornqvist who leads the Panthers with eight goals and Carter Verhaeghe who has as many goals (seven) as Huberdeau and Barkov.
The Panthers are tied for second in the NHL with an average of 34 shots on goal per game, and rank eighth on the power play (26.9%) and 11th in penalty-killing (81.1%). According to Icy Data, the team ranks eighth in Corsi rating (51.27), just behind the Tampa Bay Lightning (51.57) and just ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes (51.24).
Because of the pandemic, members of the media don’t have access to players, coaches and GMs the way they would in a normal season. Thus it is difficult to know precisely why the Zito-Quenneville marriage has worked. But the best guess is that they are working in tandem. If you talk to Zito for five minutes, you conclude quickly that he is highly knowledgeable about the NHL and AHL. Quenneville, the head coach in Chicago when the Blackhawks won three Stanley Cups, obviously know what it takes to be a champion. It makes sense for Zito to supply parts that fit into Quenneville’s schematic.
Zito has a keen ability to project players’ up-sides, evidenced by his acquisition of Verhaeghe. The 25-year-old winger had started out in the East Coast Hockey League, eventually established himself as a quality minor leaguer and then was a nine-goal scorer for Tampa Bay in 2019-20. Zito thought he might be able to play in Florida’s top six and he was right.
The big question now in Florida is whether the Panthers are too good to be believed. We’ve seen this team in past years look sharp, and then nosedive back to earth.
It’s not as if the Panthers are without problems. Sergei Bobrovsky has a $10 million-per-season contract and an .889 save percentage. The Panthers are fortunate that Chris Driedger has been getting the job done in the net.
The Panthers, however, don’t seem to be getting ahead of themselves. They are playing confidently, but not like they have earned anything. I think they believe they can be a playoff team. And that’s important for this organization.
Making the playoffs doesn’t excite the fans in Pittsburgh or Tampa or Boston or Washington. But it’s still a big deal in Florida where the team has only made the playoffs six times in 26 seasons.
At this point, the Panthers’ objective: Let’s qualify for the playoffs and see what happens. Seems like a practical approach.