Florida Panthers

Former Panther Stephen Weiss returns as a snowbird

Unlike most former Panthers who keep a home in South Florida, Stephen Weiss didn’t stay at his condo when he returned to town with the Detroit Red Wings on Monday.

“My place is empty,” Weiss said. “I'll be at the team hotel like everyone else.”

Weiss will play his first game at BB&T Center on Tuesday since leaving the Panthers as a free agent last summer. For the first time, he will be escaping the cold and dressing in the visiting locker room.

“It's going to be strange, yeah,” he said.

Weiss may have been born near Toronto and played junior hockey in Michigan, but almost a decade in South Florida had all but turned him into a local.

An avid golfer, Weiss would often leave practice in shorts and sandals and make the quick drive to his local course for a quick 18 holes.

He’s not doing that any more.

“The first time I came out and saw ice on my windshield, I couldn't believe it,” Weiss said near the Red Wings locker room on Saturday. Outside, it was 22 degrees.

“I had to go out and buy a scraper. Gloves, too.”

The weather isn't the only thing Weiss had to get used to after moving from near obscurity following a decade with the Panthers to life in Hockeytown.

There is pressure here to not only make the playoffs, but do something once there. Weiss’ Panthers infamously have made the postseason just once since 2000. The Red Wings haven't missed the playoffs since 1990. The Panthers’ first season was in 1993.

“Confidence has been a struggle for him,” Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. “I think when you go to a new place, just not being comfortable makes it hard on you. The reality is — hockey is hockey. He’s been a good player his whole career. I don't imagine it's going to take him too much longer.”

If Weiss is feeling the pressure of playing under serious expectations, he won’t admit it.

It does seems like something he needs to get adjusted to as he has only two goals and two assists in 25 games with Detroit. Weiss didn’t find the scorecard in Florida's 2-1 win at Joe Louis Arena on Saturday.

“Trying too hard sometimes can backfire on you,” Weiss said. “I think that was the case early on. I came here to be a part of something, to win hockey games. We’ve been doing that. It’s fun seeing your team at the top of the standings. That’s been a lot of fun. Personally, I’ll get that going soon.”

Said Henrik Zetterberg: “We play a little different system than they do down there and it takes time to adjust. But he’s playing well, doing a lot of little things on the ice that he doesn’t get credited for. He’s going to be here for a long, long time. We’re happy to have him.”

Weiss had become the face of the Panthers over his time in South Florida as his NHL career literally started in Sunrise when Florida made him the fourth overall pick of the 2001 draft held at what is now called the BB&T Center.

Over the next nine seasons, Weiss became the franchise’s all-time leader in games played and one of its all-time leaders in various categories.

Yet when it came time for a new contract, the Panthers didn’t have any money. The team was for sale and Weiss had missed most of the previous season after opting for major wrist surgery. Florida let him walk away to Detroit without putting up any sort of fight to keep him.

On July 5, Weiss signed a five-year deal with the Red Wings worth an average of $4.9 million. Weiss averaged $3.1 million a season over his past six years in Florida.

Weiss would have been the big news on the first day of free agency had the Red Wings not also lifted Daniel Alfredsson from Ottawa.

“It’s been fun, but it’s been an adjustment; the weather, getting settled, all those things,” Weiss said. “It's something I’m not used to. But I played junior hockey in this area so I have friends here. I really enjoyed my time here so far. Being a part of this organization is something special.”

Weiss has most definitely been missed by the Panthers, although some within the organization look at his current stats and figure not offering him a contract was the right decision.

When Florida made the playoffs two seasons ago, the line of Weiss, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Flesichmann led the NHL in scoring.

The band was broken up soon after. Versteeg, who signed a four-year deal with the Panthers in 2012, was traded back to Chicago last month.

“I already miss him here,” Fleischmann said. “He was a great player in Florida for a long time. I think it will be special for him.”