Last summer, Luke Witkowski was a "near miss" on this list. Just not enough was known at the time about the then-23-year-old defenseman who had come to Syracuse from Western Michigan. Our panel was just too unsure about how Witkowski was going to handle his first full pro season to rank him in the top 25. He got in three games at the end of the 2012-2013 AHL season, but played limited minutes and only registered 4 PIM.
Going into the 2013-2014 season, Witkowski faced what appeared to be an uphill battle for space on Syracuse's blueline. The Crunch seemed stacked with able-bodied, young defensemen. It was anticipated that guys like Dmitry Korobov, Nikita Nesterov, Artem Sergeev, and Andrej Sustr would all be battling at about the same level for those top minutes. Sustr making Tampa Bay's roster out of camp helped clear the way a little bit, but Witkowski still needed to out-shine everyone else.
Luckily for Syracuse fans, Witkowski was up to the challenge...and then some. Witkowski was the only player on the Crunch's roster who played in all 76 games the Crunch played during the regular season, and it wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to say that his presence was felt, one way or another, in every single one of those games. His effort and achievements were lauded by the organization, who gave Witkowski the Most Improved award at their end of the season ceremony. His efforts were also enough to catapult him onto this summer's list at number 22.
Here's how the panel ranked him:
|Kyle Alexander||John Fontana||Clare Austin||Mike Gallimore||Clark Brooks|
Witkowski's stay-at-home defensive style helped to hold Syracuse's blueline together this past season. Once veteran defenseman JP Cote was awarded a two-way contract and recalled in December, Witkowski seized the chance to muscle his way into top minutes. At a time when many of Syracuse's defensemen struggled to stay consistent, Witkowski always managed to hold the fort, and his stats showed this. His -1 +/- at the end of the season was second-best among Crunch defensemen.
Much like Tampa Bay defenseman Radko Gudas, Witkowski isn't afraid to use his physicality and his 6'2 frame to force opponents off the puck and, occasionally, into confrontations. His 204 PIM led the Crunch last season and earned him a Bulldog moniker among the fans. His most memorable physical moment was probably when he double-punched two Adirondack Phantoms by using their jerseys to jerk them back and forth. It was as awesome as it sounds.
Much like Gudas at the NHL level, staying out of the box and being a bit smarter about taking penalties is something Witkowski should work on at the AHL level during the 2014-2015 season.
Development-wise, Witkowski is probably the only prospect blueliner from the Crunch who is chomping-at-the-bit ready for his first NHL call up. He is definitely now ahead of players like Sergeev and Nesterov. Once he gets his chance, Tampa Bay fans will love their first look at him. He isn't a scorer--he totaled 12 points for Syracuse last season--but his ability to do his main job as a defenseman--defend--consistently makes him a rock any team should want.