On Thursday night, Stephen Weiss will become the Florida Panthers all-time leader in games played. His 614 total games will surpass the mark previously held by Radek Dvorak. No doubt it is a great achievement for a player that has stuck it out with the Panthers through their last 10 years of futility. However, if the Panthers and Weiss hope to see their long playoff drought come to an end, they desperately need Weiss to break out of his current slump.
Along with his linemates, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann, Weiss was scoring points at a torrid pace to begin the season. In his first 27 games alone, Weiss had already collected 29 points. He seemed certain to obliterate his career high of 61 points, which he set in the 2008-2009 season. For many Panthers fans, it finally seemed that Weiss would live up to his potential now that he had legitimate NHL caliber talent around him.
Unfortunately, Weiss has gone into a prolonged slump in the subsequent 29 games. During that stretch, he has only collected a meager 12 points and it's no longer a sure thing that he'll surpass his point total set in ‘08-'09. As a certain faux British spy would say, he's lost his mojo.
Coincidentally, this could not have come at a worse time for the Panthers. With the dysfunctional Washington Capitals floundering, the Southeast Division is up for grabs for the first time in years. The Panthers have had a number of opportunities to really put some distance in between themselves and their division opponents, most notably during their recent home stand, but have been unable to do so.
The Panthers came into their four game home stand riding a three game winning streak and finally looking like they had regained their early season form. It seemed as if they would finally take control of the Southeast division if they could just manage a successful home stand. The Panthers not only had the opportunity to stretch their lead over the Capitals, but also could've given themselves some breathing room against the likes of the current 7th and 8th seeds in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, the Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
However, the Panthers have so far squandered this opportunity, losing their first three games, including two crucial games against the Senators and Capitals. In those three games, the Panthers have only scored three goals while giving up 10 (although in fairness six of those came during a 6-2 drubbing at the hands of the Senators). Yet, what's really alarming is Weiss' play over what many had seen as the most crucial stretch of the Panthers season. The Panthers center only managed to record one point and is a combined -3 in those three games. At a time when you need your best player to pick up your team, Weiss has seemingly disappeared.
Now, all the blame for the Panthers inconsistency cannot solely be placed on Weiss' shoulders. The Panthers have battled injuries all season, and the recent injuries to defenseman Jason Garrison, Dmitry Kulikov, and Ed Jovanovski have really affected the Panthers offensive output. Their absences have hurt most noticeably in overall point production (remember the Panthers defensive corps was just as crucial to their early offensive output as the top trio was). At the same time, their absences have affected the Panthers in less noticeable ways as well, including the team's puck possession and ability to get clean breakouts from their defensive zone, areas that indirectly lead to scoring chances.
A possible reason for Weiss' inconsistent play is that he has probably been playing injured. He suffered an upper- body injury on December 22nd and just hasn't looked the same since. While no NHL player is going to make it through a season completely unscathed, this injury seems to have had a lingering effect on Weiss' point production
In all honesty, it was highly unlikely that Weiss would keep up the point production pace he was setting over his first 27 games. Yet, it's equally unlikely that in the midst of what would have appeared to be a career season, Weiss' point production would see such a radical drop off for no other reason than your basic poor play. An injury is the only real explanation as to how something like this could have occurred.
Whatever the reason though, the Panthers can only hope Weiss manages to regain his early season form. Despite their inconsistency and Weiss' inefficiency, they still sit atop the Southeast division going into Thursday's game against the Minnesota Wild. Although the Panthers don't necessarily need to win their division to get into the playoffs (they could still slip in as the 7th or 8th seed), winning their division would help them avoid a first round matchup with the New York Rangers or the Boston Bruins and what would likely be an early exit from the NHL's second season. To do so, the Panthers must find some way to get their best player going again. Otherwise, their newly crowned franchise leader in games played still won't be able to say he played any of those games in the playoffs, making Weiss' achievement bittersweet at best.