BY GEORGE RICHARDS
As the NHL lockout is now in its third month, there is growing concern the entire 2012-13 season could be lost.
If that's the case, there's a possibility Stephen Weiss may have played in his final game with the Florida Panthers.
Weiss, who has played in more games than anyone in franchise history, is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2013. Weiss will be in the final season of a six-year deal that averaged $3.1 million if the lockout ends and hockey begins again.
If the season is lost, players will likely burn a year off their contract making Weiss a free agent when the lockout eventually ends.
Weiss said on Monday that he and the Panthers had brief conversations before the lockout began about his future plans. Weiss has stated, and reiterated this on Monday, that he wants to remain with the Panthers. General manager Dale Tallon said over the summer that the Panthers aren't all that concerned Weiss will leave.
Weiss said that even if the season were to begin, he doesn't plan on negotiating a new contract with the team until the following offseason. Teams cannot offer contracts to players during the lockout.
"Things got stalled during the summer,'' Weiss said after yet another informal workout at the Glacier Ice Arena in Lighthouse Point.
"I don't want to do anything during the season. I just want to focus on the season and take care of business. We'll revisit it during the summer and see what happens.''
When asked if he understood the ramifications of playing the 2012-13 season as a pending free agent, Weiss nodded emphatically. The Panthers, like the Cavaliers with LeBron James, have been burned by pending free agents.
Florida, if it was out of the playoff race at the trade deadline, may be tempted to trade Weiss instead of potentially losing him for nothing. Of course, that's a long way away.
"I know what it means, but it's my decision,'' Weiss said. "I don't want to be a distraction during the season for myself or anyone else to be honest. I know for me, when I've gone through this in the past that it's never an easy situation. It sits on your mind. I just want to play and worry about that stuff at the right time. First we have to get on the ice.''
In 2009, Florida lost All-Star defenseman Jay Bouwmeester for virtually nothing as he refused to re-sign with the Panthers.
Bouwmeester's case, however, was much different. Bouwmeester made no secret of his dislike for South Florida and the dysfunction of the Panthers organization at the time as his agent actually gave then-GM Jacques Martin a list of teams Bouwmeester would like to be traded to.
Weiss, who is from Toronto, enjoys living in Florida and is seen as being very loyal to the Panthers.
Florida made Weiss the fourth overall pick of the 2001 draft held in Sunrise.
"I want to end my career with the Panthers,'' Weiss said. "This organization has been very good to me. We're starting to see brighter days ahead with the kids we have coming up and some of the draft picks we've stockpiled. There's nothing but good days ahead for this team. I believe that. I would like to stay and be a part of it.
"But at the end of the day, this is a business. And if it comes time to move on, maybe that's the case too.''
Weiss is one of a handful of Panthers players still working out in South Florida as the lockout drags on.
On Monday, former Panthers assistant coach Jim Hulton was on the ice running players through hockey and conditioning drills. With Hulton watching over things, Monday's workout had a more structured feel to it.
"I want to make a good impression for the coach,'' Marco Sturm joked as he skated off the ice dripping in sweat.
There are currently nine members of the Panthers working out at Glacier -- which was the Panthers' original training facility back in the 1990s -- as well as former Florida players Radek Dvorak, Tomas Vokoun and Sturm.
Vokoun had reportedly signed with a Czech team, but Monday he said he changed his mind and would remain in South Florida. Tomas Kopecky left to play in Czech but injured his shoulder. He's back working with his teammates but says he will head back to Europe if the lockout continues.
"I might go back, you never know,'' Kopecky said. "Sitting out the whole season isn't good for anyone. We'll see what happens over the next couple of weeks.''
Weiss said he would love to play in Europe but won't because he is in contractual limbo.
"I'm chomping at the bit and would love to play somewhere very badly,'' Weiss said. "But I have to be smart and take care of myself.''