When Dale Tallon took over as the GM of the Florida Panthers in May 2010, he had one question for his new players, do you want to be here or not? Tallon was adamant that he could build a winner in South Florida, but knew he could only succeed with players that wanted to help turn things around. Nathan Horton said no and was traded to the Boston Bruins a month later. Thankfully for the Panthers, Stephen Weiss said yes.
It would've been hard to blame Weiss for jumping ship with Horton. A member of the Panthers since the tail end of the 2001 season, Weiss has yet to play in a Stanley Cup Playoffs game. One could only imagine how difficult it must have been to watch his former teammates Horton and Gregory Campbell lift the Cup in their first season with the Bruins, while the Panthers (a glorified AHL team at this point because of Tallon's roster overhaul at the trade deadline) finished last in the Eastern Conference. Yet, Weiss never wavered in his desire to turn the Panthers into a contender and it seems this year he may finally have gotten his wish.
One of the main problems with Weiss was that Florida Panthers fans were never sure what his true potential was. Was he only a decent number two or three center on most other NHL teams? Or did he have the ability for something more? Up until this year, Weiss had never had true top tier talent along side him. What about Horton you say? He never cared enough to give a 100 percent as evidenced by his desire to get out. Well, what about David Booth? Unfortunately, Booth has never been the same since being blindsided by Mike Richards and probably never will be. Not until the acquisitions of Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg has Weiss played on a true number one line and it's starting to show.
After 20 games, not only are the Panthers off to their best start since 1999 but Weiss is also, having netted eight goals and 13 assists for 21 points, while also having a plus- 14 rating. Weiss is on pace to smash his career high of 61 points in 2008. For the first time in his career, Weiss may be the All Star many Panthers fans hoped he could be.
Weiss is neither the fastest player on the Panthers nor the flashiest. He doesn't throw monster hits. But make no mistake about it, Weiss is the best all around player on the Panthers. Watch him closely and you'll see him bust his hump to get back on defense and prevent odd man rushes. You'll see him breakup opposing teams scoring chances in the defensive zone with a quick stick lift or well placed check. You'll see him battle in the corners and dig out loose pucks to start the breakout. Weiss is the ideal two-way center that every team craves and needs to be successful.
Yet, it's not just the fact that Weiss is producing at such a high volume this season; it's how and when he's doing it. Fittingly, he scored the first goal of the Panthers season. When the Panthers needed a big win at home against the Pittsburgh Penguins, it was Weiss scoring the garbage goal to put the Panthers up three to two and seal the game. When it looked like all hope was lost against the New Jersey Devils Monday night as the Devils were rewarded with a four on three power play, it was Weiss finishing the shorthanded breakaway by going top shelf on Martin Brodeur to tie the game for the Panthers. Weiss even shook off coach Kevin Dineen who wanted to put a fresh forward on and stayed out to kill what became a five on three power play for the Devils. And it was Weiss who found Fleischmann in the slot with two minutes left for the game winner. Weiss is performing his best at the most critical times for the Panthers.
So this Thanksgiving Cats fans, give thanks for Stephen Weiss. Give thanks that he stuck it out, when probably so many of us would've taken the Horton way out, the easy way out. Give thanks that he is the heart and soul of a Panthers team that may finally be relevant again. Oh, and one more thing. Coach Dineen, there's no debate about who the captain on this team is. It's time to put the ‘C' on sweater number nine. He's earned it.