Seattle’s incoming NHL team has decided to continue its general manager search, interviewing Columbus Blue Jackets assistant GM Bill Zito among a field of other candidates.
NHL Seattle president and CEO Tod Leiweke confirmed on Thursday that his group has chosen to continue pursuing candidates even after a trio of hopefuls opted to stay with their teams or sign elsewhere. Among those being interviewed by the Seattle club is Zito, 54, a former player agent that also served as GM of Team USA at the 2018 IIHF World Championships last spring.
“We are in the process of speaking with a number of candidates, Bill Zito among them,’’ Leiweke said, while stopping short of confirming an earlier tweet by ESPN host Jordan Schultz that Zito was actually in Seattle on Thursday. “There are certainly many aspects of him that we like and find intriguing. He’s certainly somebody that brings a lot to the table and that I’m sure a lot of clubs would be interested in.’’
Leiweke wouldn’t name any others the Seattle group has spoken with, though he did suggest the process in still in its preliminary stages. Among those the team is believed to be interested in are former Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis and ex-Toronto Maple Leafs assistant GM Mark Hunter.
Former Carolina Hurricanes GM Ron Francis also has ties to the Leiweke’s organization through a friendship with former teammate and NHL Seattle senior adviser Dave Tippett.
For now, the Seattle group is especially interested in Zito’s ties to USA Hockey and knowledge of young prospects based on his work there and time spent as an agent. The team has two years to prepare for the NHL Expansion Draft, in which some of Zito’s former clients could become available.
NHL Seattle made the call to keep looking at GM candidates despite highly-preferred choices Steve Yzerman, Ken Holland and Kelly McCrimmon taking deals elsewhere. Yzerman was named GM of the Detroit Red Wings squad he captained as a player for more than two decades, bumping Holland upstairs before he agreed to a reported record five-year, $25 million deal with the Edmonton Oilers.
McCrimmon was similarly named GM of the Vegas Golden Knights after serving there as an assistant under George McPhee. Like Holland in Detroit, McPhee was promoted as the Knights’ president of hockey operations, but is expected to remain with that franchise overseeing McCrimmon’s work.
Holland’s record deal has raised eyebrows around the game and prompted speculation that the salaries of other GMs will rise accordingly. Though the NHL Seattle group had interest in Holland, it’s doubtful they would have tried to match Edmonton’s offer given the number of startup expenses the new franchise will still have to meet ahead of its October 2021 launch.
And that’s likely why, even though the group continues to interview candidates, Leiweke won’t say for certain that a deal will get done this year. It appears the team will need a combination of the right candidate at the right price — at least, far less than Holland got — to be enticed to move this year rather than waiting another 12 months to see which other candidates enter the fray.
“For now, we’re doing our homework and seeing what’s out there,” Leiweke said.