When the Tampa Bay Lightning entered the training camp before the start of the 2019-20 season, few players had a more certain role with the franchise than defenseman Luke Witkowski. As the former captain of the Lightning’s AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, Witkowski was almost certain to be a veteran leader on the Crunch’s blue line.
Throughout training camp and the preseason, however, Witkoski’s career arc saw a sudden change. While there was no room on the Lightning’s blue line for him to start with the franchise, there was a need for a big-bodied fourth-line winger who could provide some grit and hitting ability.
After making a few preseason starts as a forward, Witkowski earned an opening-night role on the Lightning’s fourth-line. Now, ten games into the season, is Witkowski finding his rhythm as a forward or has he become nothing more than a defensive liability while on the ice?
Witkowski Bringing the Hurt for Lightning
When Witkowski became a starting NHL forward, no one expected him to be an offensive machine. That being said, his scoring totals have been respectful through ten games, as he has scored one goal and posted three points. While these aren’t impressive totals, it is almost more than his career-high of four points with the Detroit Red Wings in 2017-18.
What Witkowski consistently brings to the Lightning roster is size and hitting ability. Despite the season being so young, he has already had two games where he registered nine or more hits.
Currently, Witkowski has laid down 31 hits this season, good for second on the Lightning. Given his size and physical presence, this total will only increase throughout the season, especially as he becomes more familiar with playing the role of a forward.
Witkowski Struggling on Defense
Somewhat ironically, the one aspect that Witkowski has struggled with the most this season is the defensive aspects of his game. Despite only playing roughly eight and a half minutes each night, he is already a minus-two, putting him at the bottom of the Lightning’s lineup.
His advanced stats don’t look much better, either. Witkowski’s Corsi and Fenwick-for are both atrocious, sitting at roughly 35 percent. By comparison, linemate Pat Maroon, who has played a similar role this season, is at roughly 45 percent.
It’s not that Witkowski has necessarily looked outmatched while on the ice, but you can clearly tell that he has not adjusted to life as a forward yet. He has only been in the role for less than a month now, though, so it may be a few more weeks before he fully understands what he needs to be successful.
Witkowski Has to Show Continued Improvement
The good news for Witkowski is that he has plenty of time to adjust to life on the wing. He will struggle at times this year, but if he can steadily improve his game, he should be more than ready to provide the Lightning with a needed tough presence for the playoffs.
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However, just because he is there to provide a physical edge to Tampa Bay, this doesn’t mean that Witkowski should get a free pass when it comes to his defensive game. The Lightning have far too much talent waiting on ice-time for him to simply be a hitting forward.
If Witkowski can’t improve his game over the coming weeks, the Lightning should be willing to send him back to the Crunch in order to open up space for a smaller but more skilled forward to have the opportunity to shine.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.