Luke Witkowski  has learned many lessons in the first half of his rookie season.
The defenseman is surrounded by quality teachers, whether its a coaching staff with decades of experience in professional hockey or the many veterans that dot the Syracuse Crunch lineup.
But sometimes, the best lessons are taught through personal experience.
“These guys help him and we try to help him as much as possible, but I think sometimes you have to live through some of those mistakes,” said Crunch coach Rob Zettler. “You can tell a guy to move the puck quickly as much as you want, but sometimes he has to learn the hard way and get caught doing it.”
With injuries and call-ups constantly shuffling the Syracuse defensive corps this season, Witkowski gained hockey knowledge through increased ice time. The 23-year-old handled his new responsibilities with poise, and has progressed into one of the Crunch’s most reliable players.
“Over the past couple of weeks, you’re starting to see some of the fruits of that labor,” Zettler said of Witkowski. “He’s playing hard, he’s playing tough, and he’s starting to make really good decisions with the puck.”
With notable names like veteran defenseman Jean-Philippe Cote  called up to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Witkowski provides much-needed grit to the Crunch’s blueline. The 6-2 Michigan native has played in all 44 games, and accumulated 119 penalty minutes through big hits and a handful of scraps.
“His physicality certainly helps,” Zettler said. “He plays a tough game. We like that over and above the fighting part of it. He plays with a little bit of jam, and we need that back there. Especially with Cote gone, we’re missing that element.”
A former co-captain at Western Michigan University, Witkowski has been primarily used with Dmitry Korobov , who is in his second pro season in North America. At times, Witkowski has also been paired with veteran Matt Taormina .
“With Taormina’s offensive ability, we play really well together because I’m a stay-at-home defensive defenseman,” Witkowski said. “We seem to reach each other really well. Same with Korobov. He’s always in a position where I know he’ll be, and he supports me well and I support him well.”
Witkowski, who first got his feet wet with three pro games with the Crunch last year, is intentionally keeping his game simple. The Lightning’s sixth-round pick in 2008 focuses on being responsible in his own end and moving the puck up to the forwards to keep the offense rolling.
“I’m not trying to do too much right now ... I’m not trying to do anything that I can’t do right now,” Witkowski said.
Although learning the hard way isn’t the most ideal, Witkowski knows all of the ice time -- and the experience that comes with it -- can be the best teacher.
“I’m going with the flow, trying to learn as much as possible,” Witkowski said.