If there's any one player currently under contract with the Florida Panthers that symbolizes perseverance, dedication and determination, it's Stephen Weiss. Also, if there's any one player under contract with the Florida Panthers that symbolizes failure, demoralization and insanity, it's Stephen Weiss. The solid two-way center for the Panthers has been a part of the organization since 2001, when the Cats took Weiss in the first round of the NHL Draft with the fourth overall pick. Since then, Florida has made the playoffs only one time (last season) and have only a division championship to boast about in that 11-year span (also from last season). And yet Weiss, who has had chances to exit the organization through free agency or trade, has stayed with the team that drafted him, showing a type of loyalty that is all too rare in professional sports.
It looks like Weiss's loyalty is paying off, as current General Manager Dale Tallon has resurrected the franchise, bringing not only wins but a winning attitude to the Panthers. The club's first postseason visit in nearly three presidential terms has the NHL and fans talking, and with some fantastic talent in the pipeline and the freedom to spend to improve the team, Tallon has the Cats on the fast track towards contending for a Stanley Cup in the near future, whether the pundits are ready to acknowledge it or not. Weiss has been a big part of that, providing the team with both offensive skill and defensive effort every game as the top-line center. His gutsy play and tenure with the team have many calling for the "C" to be stitched onto his sweater for this upcoming season.
But with one year left on his deal, and a plethora of top-tier prospects on their way to the NHL, there's one huge, looming question facing both Dale Tallon and the Panther organization: What to do with Stephen Weiss?
At a cap hit of $3.1m, Weiss is a relative bargain. He hasn't scored less than 20 goals in each of the last three seasons, and hasn't scored less than 49 points since the 2008-2009 season. He's responsible defensively and brings a brand of quiet leadership to a team that knows he's the longtooth of the organization. Not so sure about that leadership? Ask Kevin Dineen, Kris Versteeg or Jose Theodore who they felt they were playing for last year during the Panthers nail-biting seven-game series against the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Every guy on that Panther roster wanted to win that series for Weiss, who was among the top in terms of NHL games played without a playoff appearance.
He's also one of the faces of the franchise. Despite being diminutive compared to some of the first-line centers around the NHL, Weiss's effort is unquestioned and his production only improved last season after he was paired with newcomers Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann. Panther fans can relate to Weiss, who has suffered alongside them as the Cats stayed near the bottom of the standings and remained a laughing stock of the league. Now that fortunes have turned, fans both new and old have been elated to see a loyal guy like Weiss rewarded with some tangible progress for the organization as well as a bright future ahead.
With all of that said, hockey's a business. The entire matter devolves to a point where Weiss is simply another piece of a puzzle for the Panthers or another team, and despite his loyalty to the club and determination to help turn Florida into a winner, there's a chance he will wear another team's sweater once his contract expires. He's likely going to be looking for a raise, and he'll likely get it, as consistent 50-60 point centers in this league are averaging around $4-5m a season nowadays. The Panthers will need to evaluate Weiss's value to the team against that type of cap hit, especially because Florida, who has the top-ranked prospect pool in the entire league, will need to leave cap space to sign the upcoming talent to long-term deals in the future. With only one year left on his current deal, the Panthers and Weiss will be talking quite a bit during the upcoming season.
So, again I ask: What to do with Stephen Weiss? In my eyes, there's only one choice: keep him, and try to sign him long-term. His numbers don't indicate a contract worth more than $4-4.5m annually, and with the amount of upcoming talent available, the Panthers have the negotiating chips in hand. His value to the team goes well beyond offensive numbers, and you can't complain about the numbers he's posted so far in his career while being paired with what has essentially been second-line talent. He has chemistry with long-term linemates Versteeg and Fleischmann (three years left for Flash, four years left for Steeger), is arguably the best two-way player on the team and is solid on faceoffs. The Panthers will struggle to find a guy that fits all of those traits in free agency, and would overpay for them there versus re-signing Weiss to a long-term deal.
Why a long-term deal, you ask? Well, Weiss will be 30 next April. He's not young, and he's not old yet either. He's still in the prime years of his career and the talent around him will be better than it's ever been during his time with Florida. His potential production has to be considered with talent like Versteeg, Fleischmann and upcoming phenom Jonathan Huberdeau on his wings. It makes sense to sign him around $4.5m a year to a five or six year deal and keep him in Florida for much of the remainder of his career. There's no promising he'll stay as the team's top-line center as the Panthers have youth ready to fill that role in the near future (think Nick Bjugstad), but having a guy as good as Weiss as your second-line center would be huge towards organizational depth. Many believe he's never been suited for a top-line center in the first place, and I would have to agree, although he's proven he can be when called upon.
The upcoming season could be the biggest of Weiss's career, as he's not only playing for a new contract with the Panthers, but for the rest of the NHL as well. This is likely the last chance for Weiss to hit the open free agent market with a high perceived value and you can be sure he and his agent are considering cashing in on it. He's been loyal to the Cats up to this point but depending on the type of season Weiss has, he could be a very hot commodity on the market next July. It will be up to Tallon and the Panthers to try and entice Weiss to stay in Sunrise as the team continues on the upswing, but only at the right price and term.