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Versatile Witkowski provides Bolts with options

Witkowski played on the wing and on the blue line during a two-year stint with the Red Wings

by Bryan Burns /

Luke Witkowski is beginning his second stint with the organization that selected him with the 160th overall pick (6th Round) in the 2008 NHL Draft.

Witkowski made his Tampa Bay Lightning debut during the 2014-15 season and spent three seasons bouncing up and down between the Lightning and their AHL affiliate in Syracuse, performing admirably in both locales and cementing his status as a team-first guy.

During the summer 2017 offseason, Witkowski signed a two-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings, the Holland, Mich. native living out a dream playing the next two seasons for his childhood team. In Detroit, Witkowski filled sort of a hybrid role, spending the majority of his time as a fourth line winger while also slotting into his usual spot on the blue line at times.

This offseason, the Lightning brought Witkowski back to Tampa Bay, and his experience playing both positions at the NHL level could prove invaluable when Lightning coaches and management are whittling down the final roster spots and looking for versatile players to fill in.

Video: Witkowski on rejoining Bolts

"It's great to be back," Witkowski said from the Ice Sports Forum following the second day of on-ice action at Lightning training camp. "It was special to sign with the Wings being that I'm from Michigan, but with the success, maybe not in the playoffs last year, but the regular season success (the Lightning) had last year and the group of players in this room, I think a lot of guys around the league would want to play with this team."

Witkowski's hybrid role was actually devised by Lightning head coach Jon Cooper during the burly defenseman's final season in Tampa Bay. The coach needed a physical forward to play a fourth-line role alongside Gabriel Dumont and Cedric Paquette and approached Witkowski about moving up to slot in at wing.

Witkowski, a healthy scratch for extended stretches in Tampa Bay, was receptive.

"I didn't care. I wanted to be in the lineup," Witkowski recalled. "If he would have said, 'you'll be third-string goalie,' I would have said yes."

That versatility helped him secure a free-agent deal with the Red Wings and is a reason he was brought back to Tampa Bay for his second go-round.

"Luke checks all the boxes," Cooper said. "He can play multiple positions. He's been around a little bit in the league now. He's got great leadership qualities. He's a complete team-first guy. He's got the skating ability to play both positions in this league, and so he's a luxury to have…It's great to have him back. It was tough when he left, understand why he did. But you know when you bring him back how much he meant to us before he left. Hopefully there's good things to come from him."

Witkowski has been used strictly as a defenseman through the first couple days of training camp, but if need be, he can certainly bring his unique set of skills to the forward position for the Bolts too. And perhaps that's where his place on this Lightning team is established, as a reserve defenseman and forward who can step into the lineup in a pinch in either position.

"Fourth line forward, you know what I'm going to do. I'm going to work hard and get pucks deep and finish my checks," he said. "Naturally, I think I'm better at defense, but whatever I get the call to do, do it to the best of my abilities."

STEPHENS HEALTHY AGAIN: 2018-19 was Mitchell Stephens' most frustrating season of his career.

Expected to play a hefty role for the Syracuse Crunch and perhaps even challenge for a spot on the Lightning roster, Stephens was limited to just 32 games as he battled injuries most of the year.

It took him a month into the summer offseason before he was back to full strength he said, but as he enters training camp with an eye on making the Lightning roster, he's finally feels he can put last season's injury-plagued campaign behind him.

"Last year was a pretty devastating year only playing 30-some-odd games," Stephens said. "I think my focus this summer was to come back stronger and make sure everything was healed and work on my game as much as I can."

Stephens said the time off the ice did help in one aspect: He got to watch a lot of hockey, allowing him to see the game differently than he had previously.

"I think that helped me sort of, my mindset of different plays and different aspects of the game I need to work on," he said. "It was good but still obviously want to be on the ice as much as I can."

Stephens is one of a handful of prospects vying for a Lightning roster spot. Most of the forward positions are accounted for, but the Lightning are still looking for another fourth line winger and a depth guy or two to have in reserve.

Stephens, a 2015 second-round draft pick of the Bolts, is on the cusp of making his NHL debut and hopes a positive showing at training camp will be the push he needs to get there.

"You hear when guys sign, the roster moves, but at the end of the day, you're just focusing on yourself and trying to get in the best shape you can, control your skills, get better at everything," Stephens said when asked if he added up forwards and roster spots during the offseason to see where he might fit in. "At the end of the day, you have to try to fight for a spot against someone else, so if you're at the top of your game, you have to make it hard on the other players."

CIRELLI CENTERS TOP LINE: Toward the end of Game 4 of Tampa Bay's shocking first-round sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets last season, Anthony Cirelli saw time centering a line with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, a desperate attempt by the Lightning to get something, anything going offensively.

Video: Back to Work

When the Lightning opened training camp Friday, Cirelli was again in a top-line role with Stamkos and Ondrej Palat on his wings, a deserving promotion for a rookie who slotted in mainly as a third-line center last season.

Certainly, the absence of Brayden Point has forced the Lightning to move some parts around. And observers are continually reminded by coaches not to read too much into lines and defensive pairings in camp, especially during its early stages.

Still, it's hard to watch Cirelli play with Stamkos and Palat and not see the potential that combination has. 

"Training camp is the time to look at all different angles," Cooper said. "We're missing a centerman on our team, so other guys are going to have to jump into those situations. But the one thing that has happened we've had centers have to play wing and guys have played all over. So I don't think it hurts us in that regard. Naturally, you'd like to have your whole team here and understand that's not the case right now, but guys have got to fill those roles."

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