Detroit – The Red Wings used to have Mathieu Dandenault on their roster back in the early 2000s, a versatile player who could play forward or defense.
Luke Witkowski, who signed a free-agent contract Saturday with the Red Wings, is like Dandenault in that manner.
Witkowski, a Holland, Mich., native who played collegiately at Western Michigan, can play forward or defense.
But that’s about where comparison ends.
While Dandenault was known more for his skating, Witkowski (though a good skater) is known for his physical style of play.
And it’s that physical edge, plus versatility, and being a first-rate teammate, that led the Red Wings to sign Witkowski, 27, to a two-year contract worth $1.5 million total.
“He plays tough, hard, and he knows how to play the game,” general manager Ken Holland said. “It’s not only fighting, it’s being able to make the other team know that it could be a tough night, and when the other team wants to play a certain way, you’ve got the ability to respond.”
But Witkowski’s ability to move seamlessly from forward to defense – and back – is a luxury on the modern-day NHL roster.
“Part of depth is having players that can play more than one position,” Holland said. “Luke can play, we think, right wing on the fourth line. He can play defense.
“He partnered with Dan DeKeyser (at Western Michigan), so there’s good familiarity.”
Witkowski’s signing was somewhat pushed into the background Saturday, as the signing of veteran defenseman Trevor Daley attracted the most headlines.
But Witkowski brings to the table, with his versatility and toughness, could definitely help the Red Wings.
Witkowski (6-foot-2, 217 pounds) played with DeKeyser at WMU from 2009-13, and was coached by Jeff Blashill during the 2010-11 season, before Blashill joined the Red Wings organization.
Red Wings fans might remember Witkowski as the player Anthony Mantha fought March 30, resulting in a broken finger for Mantha that ended his season.
“I give it my all every night I go out there,” said Witkowski, who had four assists and 39 penalty minutes last season in 34 games with Tampa. “I’d like to think I’m a great teammate. I stick up for my team and I enjoy doing it.”
Playing both positions has never been an issue for Witkowski, who spent the last five years in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization.
“Some games I’d be going one shift playing right wing and next shift I was playing right defense,” Witkowski said. “The transition is not as difficult for me. I like playing both positions. My skating helps me able to do that.
“Me and Danny were defensive partners for three years, roommates for a year. We really complement each other well. We kind of bring different elements to the game.
“I played under Blashill for a year and learned a lot from him and (Red Wings assistant coach) Pat Ferschweiler. I owe a lot of Fersch, actually, for developing my game in college and getting me ready for the pro game.”
Having the opportunity to return home and play for the Red Wings was not lost on Witkowski.
“I’m very grateful for everything Tampa provided for me and the opportunity they gave me,” Witkowski said. “But to come back to Michigan and play for the Red Wings is a dream come true.”
With the Red Wings crowded on defense with bodies, they could use a veteran fourth-liner, which could suit Witkowski well in his attempt to make the roster.
For Witkowski, it doesn’t matter where he plays.
“I have to earn my spot on the roster and I’m looking forward to doing that,” Witkowski said. “I cherish every day that I have in the NHL.”
Hometown: Holland, Mich.
High school: Holland
College: Western Michigan
Drafted: Selected by Tampa Bay Lightning in sixth round, No. 160 overall, in 2008.
NHL statistics: 54 games, 0 goals, 4 assists, minus-1 rating and 58 penalty minutes in parts of three seasons with Tampa Bay.
Drafted: Selected by Dallas Stars in second round, No. 43 overall, in 2002.
NHL statistics: 894 games, 78 goals, 200 assists, plus-22 rating and 580 penalty minutes in 13 seasons with Dallas, Chicago and Pittsburgh.