Panthers hire Blue Jackets’ Zito as new GM

Columbus Blue Jackets vice president of hockey operations Bill Zito is the new general manager of the Florida Panthers, the team announced Wednesday.

“I’m humbled and honored to accept the position of General Manager of the Florida Panthers,” Zito said in a statement. “… I believe in this organization and I am incredibly proud to be a part of it. Our team has great potential and I look forward to start working together in building something special in South Florida. I can’t wait to get to work.”

Zito replaces Dale Tallon, whose contract expired this season. The Panthers made the postseason only three times during Tallon’s 10 years with the organization. The NHL is currently investigating a claim that Tallon used a racial slur while in the Toronto bubble with the Panthers.

“Bill is an excellent mind in our game today who proved during his time with the Columbus Blue Jackets that he possesses great prowess for evaluating talent and building success,” Panthers owner Vincent Viola said in a statement. “He brings great experience to our club and possesses a strong business acumen.”

Zito, 55, was hired by the Blue Jackets as an assistant general manager in 2013. He had been the founder and former president of Acme World Sports, a player agency.

The Blue Jackets promoted Zito to vice president of hockey operations last summer. This is his first general manager job in the NHL. He has been in the mix for several NHL front-office openings in the past few seasons, having interviewed with the New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers and expansion Seattle Kraken, among others.

“Bill Zito’s contributions to the Columbus Blue Jackets over the past seven years have been many, as he has played a significant role as a leader within our hockey operations department,” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said in a statement. “He is a dear friend and has worked extremely hard and is very deserving of this opportunity.

“While I am disappointed to see him move on, I am happy for Billy and his family, wish him well and thank him, on behalf of our organization, for his dedication, counsel and friendship.”

Zito graduated from Yale, where he played college hockey, and later served as an assistant coach for the University of Wisconsin varsity hockey team while attending law school there.

The Panthers were a disappointment this season, going 35-26-8 before the season was paused amid the coronavirus pandemic. They were then eliminated in the qualification round of the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs by the New York Islanders.

Florida made a splash last summer in hiring three-time Stanley Cup winner Joel Quenneville as coach and signing former Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky — a player Zito knows quite well — to a seven-year, $70 million free-agent contract.

The Panthers are expected to formally announce Zito’s hiring Wednesday.

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