Witkowski Focusing on Play Instead of Promotion

By Jeremy Houghtaling

Luke Witkowski isn't sitting idly by waiting for the phone to ring.

The Syracuse defenseman, one of the last players cut from Tampa Bay Lightning training camp who earned a short call-up in October but didn't play, isn't worried about when he will have the opportunity to make his NHL debut. Even with the Lightning's blueline being banged up, Witkowski is focused on his game and doing what he can to help the Crunch.

"I'm not really worried about that right now," Witkowski said of the possibility of a promotion.

Syracuse head coach Rob Zettler has seen progress in Witkowski's second professional season.

"I think Luke has actually played really well of late," Zettler said. "He's physical as always, defending well. He's starting to move the puck better and quicker. His game has really improved over the last three or four weeks."

But that didn't come without a wake-up call. Zettler chose to make Witkowski a healthy scratch in late November against Hershey.

Since then, Witkowski has seemed to turn the corner. The 6-3, 213-pounder was a minus-4 through the first 20 games of the season, but was a plus-7 in December.

"He's smarter and he's in peoples' faces more on the rush," Zettler said. "He's shutting plays down before it gets to our end, and that's a sign of maturity and confidence."

Known more for his stay-at-home and hard-hitting style, Witkowski registered four points in 34 games this season. He recorded 12 points, a team-leading 204 penalty minutes, and was the only player to see action in all 76 games during his rookie season.

Although Witkowski impressed in Tampa Bay's training camp, the defensive depth pushed him to Syracuse. Witkowski admitted he felt a little more pressure to be one of the Crunch's top defensemen in his sophomore season.

"At the same time, it's good for my confidence as well," the 2008 sixth-rounder said. "I feel like I got away from my game, and Zettler obviously saw that and now I've been playing more of my game."

At 24-years-old, Witkowski is the oldest non-veteran on the Crunch roster. But Zettler saw that as a positive during the Holland, Michigan native's rookie campaign.

"He's better prepared physically," Zettler said. "He wasn't used to playing as many games last year or three games in three days or those calendar situations, but he showed no signs of wear and tear across the year. Maybe a younger guy would show more wear and tear and have more ebbs and flows. Since he was older and more physically and mentally mature, he stayed the course and continued to get better throughout the year."

The former Western Michigan University co-captain intends to continue to develop his game and lead by example on the ice until the call comes.

"I just try and lead with my game and play a strong defensive game," Witkowski said. "Maybe get in a scrap every once in a while."

Pictured: Crunch defenseman Luke Witkowski looks to make a pass against the Americans at the Onondaga County War Memorial on Oct. 31, 2014.