It’s a sick catch-22 in the hockey world. You have to have depth in order to have sustained success but the only way to test that depth is for injuries to occur.
For the Tampa Bay Lightning, they are getting a test of their depth on the blue line this season.
Early on this season, they were forced to play without Victor Hedman after he missed time due to a broken hand. Radko Gudas would also be lost for the rest of the season after needing surgery on his knee.
Losing Gudas was a big blow, as he presented the only real physical threat on the blue line. Nikita Nesterov has continued his improved play, filling in on the top pair with Anton Stralman while Hedman missed more time. He has registered an assist in each of his last two games and has posted a plus-rating in three of his five games played.
Even with Hedman expected to return after missing the last two games, the Lightning may be dealt another blow in its place, as Matt Carle was forced to miss practice with an undisclosed injury.
Luke Witkowski Brings Physical Edge to Lightning
If he gets an opportunity to get into the lineup, Luke Witkowski will be the tenth defenseman that the Lightning have used this year, as the 24-year old Holland, Michigan was recalled on Friday.
An older prospect, Witkowski didn’t make his professional debut until he was 22-years old after spending four years at Western Michigan University.
Witkowski wouldn’t crack the Lightning’s top prospects list in any publication but that doesn’t mean he can’t make an impact at the next level – even a small, quiet one.
“He has a mature approach to his game, which can best be described as simple and physical,” said Bolts Prospects, a website dedicated to following Tampa Bay’s prospects. “When he plays within himself he’s a very effective stay-at-home defenseman in the mold of former Lightning player Cory Sarich.”
Physical indeed, as in his first professional season Witkowski tallied 204 penalty minutes in 76 games. In his first full pro-season in the minors, Gudas had 165 minutes in the same amount of games played. Through 36 games this season, Witkowski has registered 75 minutes in penalties.
When Gudas went out with his injury it left a big hole on the blue line. The Lightning has plenty of skill among their defensive group, but no grit. While he doesn’t present much upside, given the right opportunity Witkowski could be exactly what the Lightning have been missing.
Nothing flashy, but neither was Sarich and who can deny the impact he made in his 490 career games as a member of the Lightning with his physical play?
Anthony covers the Tampa Bay Lightning for The Hockey Writers. He is also currently a Featured Columnist for Last Word on Sports, and has held editorial positions on multiple Fansided websites and the now defunct The Farm Club.