Coach Jeff Blashill on new defensemen Trevor Daley and Luke Witkowski. Ted Kulfan, Detroit News
Traverse City – Sure it’s the middle of summer, but Jeff Blashill is already thinking about next hockey season.
A head coach always does, and for Blashill there’s added incentive to look ahead.
The additions of defenseman Trevor Daley and defenseman / forward Luke Witkowski fill needs, especially in Daley’s case.
“Trevor was a high priority for us,” said Blashill after Sunday’s intra-squad scrimmage during the Red Wings’ development camp. “He’s a top-four defenseman who can play those types of minutes.
“Luke Witkowski, I coached at college (Western Michigan), and I had the chance to see him play a little bit at forward this year in Tampa and I like the versatility, his ability to play (both positions). He brings toughness and physicality and he can skate.”
Daley was a defenseman the Red Wings identified early in their offseason meetings as a target to sign.
Even though Daley will turn 34 when the NHL season begins, his ability to skate and transport the puck remain elite – and the Red Wings simply haven’t had a defenseman like that.
“He’s a breakout guy, he can get you out of your end,” Blashill said. “He can join the play and add offense at times without being on the power play, which is important. That offense may not be his points, but it’s getting out of your end and getting the puck into the forwards’ hands.
“At the end of the day, he’s a quality defenseman and he’s a quality person.”
Some fans and analysts downplayed the Daley addition, given his age. But Blashihll doesn’t believe age is an issue for one primary reason.
“The fact he skates as well as he does,” said Blashill, noting Daley’s biggest strength. “People look at age a lot of time; I don’t look at age. I look at where their game is and what kind of skaters they are.
“If you’re a real good skater -- and Mark Howe (Red Wings’ director of pro scouting) said it in our meetings and he’s right -- if you’re a real good skater it doesn’t matter (the age). You can skate forever. Mark Howe was one of those types of guys. Kris Draper can still fly.
“We’re excited with that.”
Daley had 19 points (five goals, 14 assists) in 56 games in Pittsburgh last season, with a plus-7 rating.
Daley had arthroscopic knee surgery during the season, missing a month, and was also recovering from a broken ankle suffered in the 2016 playoffs.
In the playoffs, Daley was one of the Penguins’ most valuable defensemen with five points (one goal, four assists) in 21 games, with a plus-7 rating, while helping the Penguins to a second consecutive Stanley Cup victory.
Witkowski’s arrival makes the Red Wings deeper at two positions, which in today’s NHL is a valuable asset with tight salary caps.
Witkowski can easily move from defenseman to forward, or vice versa, and adequately play meaningful minutes.
“When most teams are right against the cap, and we are as well, it gives you a lot of flexibility,” said Blashill, noting long-term injuries can decimate a team. “You need guys who can play both spots. It’ll help us for sure that he can play both positions.”
Blashill envisions Witkowski playing “a good amount” of forward.
And with Witkowski’s size (6-2, 217 pounds) and ability to protect teammates, those are other assets the Red Wings value.
“He can skate, he can hit, and he’s a big man who knows how to handle himself,” Blashill said. “It’s important to have that toughness and looking after each other so some of our young players don’t have to take the beating at times they do.”