Long Road Beginning to Payoff for Luke Witkowski

A review of the 2008 draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning will ultimately show success if for no other reason than that was the draft where the team chose Steven Stamkos as the number one pick. It would be somewhat shocking if any  Lightning fan could name anyone else from that draft without the assistance of Google.

There have been four others that have played in the NHL, in fact two of them, James Wright and Mark Barberio have played in over 100 NHL games. The remaining two are goalie, Dustin Tokarski and the subject of this piece, Luke Witkowski.

Witkowski has seen the least amount of NHL playing time from the Lightning class of 2008, with 16 games under his belt. News of the Lightning re-signing Witkowski was announced last week by the team without a lot of fanfare. Perhaps, the Lightning faithful are simply seeing Luke as just another body on the roster.

As the new season gets underway, it is interesting to note that from the class of 2008, only Stamkos and Witkowski remain with the organization. Both Tokarski and Barberio are in the Montreal system. After a couple of seasons with Winnipeg, Wright played last year in the KHL.

So Stamkos and Witkowski endure with the team albeit from divergent paths. Obviously, the smallest minority of hockey people doubted the future of Stamkos back in 2008. Okay, so Barry Melrose said that he thought Stammer wasn’t ready for the NHL. Most analysts who even heard of Witkowski probably said the same about the big defenseman back in 2008. For that matter, they probably said the same thing in 2009, 2010, 2011 and even this year. This season is the season that the belief here is that Witkowski is determined to prove the naysayers wrong.

A Road Less Travelled

As the 160th player taken in the NHL draft in 2008, it wasn’t as if Witkowski could write his ticket to the show. As a defenseman, the development to a serviceable NHL blue liner is longer than those who play forward. The fact is that a lot of sixth round draft picks never even sniff the NHL.

Luke Witkowski
Luke Witkowski playing for Western Michigan (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

To his credit, Witkowski from Holland, Michigan, knew he needed to continue to improve his game and decided to play for Western Michigan University. Playing all four years, Witkowski helped lead the team to the NCAA tournament after securing the CCHA championship during his junior year, against Michigan.

After finishing his career at WMU, Witkowski signed an entry-level contract with the Lightning in April of 2013 and was assigned to the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL. During the 2013-14 season, Luke played 76 games for the Crunch, scoring two goals and ten assists. The stat that really jumps out is the penalty minutes. Witkowski amassed 204 PIM in those 76 games.

When Opportunity Knocks

During his second season at Syracuse, Witkowski needed to address the penalty minutes. He did by cutting the PIMs by over a third. From the 204 minutes in 76 games to 91 minutes in 50 games. Playing a more controlled personal game gave the Lightning enough confidence last season to recall Witkowski on a couple of occasions when players went down with injuries.

Taking advantage of the opportunity to play with Tampa, Witkowski played with a maturity not always seen in emergency call-ups. Perhaps, because he was already 24 years old. This was a rookie that had over 100 AHL games and over 150 NCAA games under his belt.

At six foot two, Witkowski can dole out some punishment in the defensive zone. At WMU, he was one of the leaders on the team that had experienced some success. When he had the chance to play for Tampa, the experience showed.

With Age comes Wisdom

He didn’t seem to get rattled especially when carrying the puck in his zone. That sums up what you need to know about this guy. Just about every season at Western Michigan, Witkowski improved his game. The upward progression continued in Syracuse.

He did the same at Syracuse where his second season was better than his first. Not only in reducing greatly the number of minutes in the sin bin but also in his overall play.

When he finally made his NHL debut last season, his draft buddy, Stamkos already had over 400 NHL games on his resume. This fact did not deter Witkowski in the least. You could see the wide-eyed wonderment of a player making his NHL debut. You could also see that this was no typical rookie. He played with the poise of a five-year veteran.

Witkowski was a man-child. He showed it in the hits he gave out. He showed it in the cool manner he had when the puck was on his stick. Lastly, he showed it by not getting called for penalties anywhere near the clip he had done so in the AHL. He played in 15 games for the Lighting last season and only had 16 minutes of penalties.

New Season

Witkowski has a very good chance at making the opening game roster for the Lightning this season. As a defenseman with a right-handed shot, these are the guys that are the NHL equivalent of a left-handed MLB reliever who throws 100 MPH.

No doubt that he will be given every opportunity to showcase his improving talent and skills. I’d wager that he will take full advantage of this chance. This is a 25 year-old player ready to show the NHL the level of desire he has to play this game with the best players in the world.

There is little chance that Witkowski ever becomes the best Lightning from his draft class. But the way he plays and the manner in which he continually improves his game, there is no doubt that when talking about the 2008 draft class, Lightning fans will begin talking about more than just one player. Maybe one day, a fan will even say, “oh yeah, that’s the year we got Luke.”