Lightning Development Camp has become a staple of Luke Witkowski’s summer schedule and he has taken full advantage of the experience.
The Western Michigan defenseman, a sixth-round draft pick in 2008, finished his fourth week with Bolts prospects on Saturday and likely his last as an amateur.
“I’m one of the older guys, so I try to be a leader when I’m here,” said Witkowski, 22. “I just tell them to relax. It’s a development camp. You’re here to learn.”
Witkowski, who will be a senior with the Broncos in the fall, has compiled plenty of information in his four years at camp that he has used to enhance his game and passed on to other players.
The 6 foot 2, 209-pound Witkowski has become an impact player at the college level without being a big scorer and consistently improved his stock going forward.
Defense - TBL
“Luke is the type of player that becomes a premium on a team,” Lightning Player Development Coordinator Steve Thomas said. “He’s a good, puck-moving guy. He’s big and sturdy and he plays with an edge. Every team needs a player like that. His willingness to get in front of shots is something that some guys just don’t want to do. He’s a brave guy.”
Witkowski said he has taken a lot from what he has learned in the weight room from several different trainers at camp, including this year when he could feel the changes the next day on the ice. He thought he was a great skater when he arrived at his first camp, but has been able to pick up little things each year that has made him much better. He has also helped others at camp with their technique and advice, even teaching some of the European players how to tweet in English.
But perhaps the biggest thing that has helped him have a solid college career is adjusting his game to his strengths after playing for the inaugural Fargo Force of the U.S. Hockey League in 2008-09.
“I came into [college] trying to be an offensive defenseman, going end to end all the time,” said Witkowski, from Holland, Mich. “I think I’m becoming more of a defensive defenseman, making that good first pass, shutting down the other team’s top line. I think I’ve definitely become much more cool and collected on the ice.”
Thomas said Witkowski is a player who has to and does play a simple game. Witkowski played on the top pairing for the Broncos with Dan DeKeyser, who was a second-team West Region All American and highly-regarded enough to get offers from NHL teams after last season. Thomas said DeKeyser was an offensive guy and Witkowski was “very effective” as his defense partner.
Western Michigan won only its second CCHA title by beating Michigan in the final -- its first since 1986. Witkowski had two goals, 13 points and finished with a plus/minus of plus-8 with 66 blocked shots – second on the team. He had six and nine points, respectively, his first two seasons.
Witkowski could have turned pro after the season, but decided to come back for one more go-around as a captain. The Broncos’ season ended two wins from the Frozen Four in Tampa when they lost to North Dakota 3-1 in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“[The Lightning] left it up to me,” Witkowski said. “It’s only going to help me. I’ll get my degree and be that much closer to being able to play in the NHL or AHL.”
[The Lightning] left it up to me. It’s only going to help me. I’ll get my degree and be that much closer to being able to play in the NHL or AHL. - Luke Witkowski
Former NHL coach Andy Murray -- with the Kings and Blues -- took over Western Michigan last season and led the Broncos to a 21-14-6 record, giving Witkowski another strong resource.
“He definitely runs it like an NHL team,” Witkowski said. “He’s gives us our time and respects us. He’s a real player’s coach.”
Coming back also gives him another chance at a national title, with several key players returning.
“That’s definitely a motivation,” Witkowski said.
This time next year, Witkowski will be looking ahead to a professional career with even more experience behind him. He may also get to do one of his favorite things – fishing – in the Tampa area soon.
“He’s mature well beyond his age,” Thomas said. “He’s one of those guys, that when he’s at development camp there are always guys around him.”