'Gritty' Witkowski gives Red Wings lineup flexibility

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
The fans keep an eye on right wing Luke Witkowski during practice.

Traverse City — There’s talk with the Tigers regarding Andrew Romine playing all nine positions.

The closest the Red Wings can match that performance is Luke Witkowski.

Playing wing, or moving to defense, it doesn’t matter. Witkowski, a versatile Holland native who played with Danny DeKeyser and was coached by Jeff Blashill when all three were at Western Michigan, can play both positions.

The Red Wings signed Witkowski on July 1 as a free agent, a 2-year contract worth $1.5 million, with his versatility — along with toughness — attracting the team.

“There were games last year where I’d sit in the middle of the bench, and one shift I was playing forward, and the next shift on defense,” said Witkowski of his season in Tampa. “You kind of get used to it. There’s a lot more skating forward as a forward — and more skating backward on defense.

“I didn’t really think about it until last year. I stepped in and actually earned more ice time. I thought maybe I can continue this and make a career out of it.”

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Witkowski could prove valuable for his ability to play both positions, but also for his willingness to protect teammates.

Red Wings fans might remember Witkowski for his fight against Anthony Mantha late last season in which Mantha broke a finger that ended his season.

Witkowski (6-foot-3, 214-pounds) was sticking up for Tampa’s Greg McKegg, who Mantha took extra punches on while McKegg was defenseless on the ice.

“I wear my heart on my sleeve and I can play that gritty game,” Witkowski said. “I’ll bring the chippiness.”

Returning to his home state, and getting a chance to wear the Red Wings’ jersey, is a dream come true.

“Being a Michigan guy you grow up looking up to (the Red Wings),” Witkowski said. “To put the sweater on and get a chance to play my first game here is awesome.”

Learning curve

Michael Rasmussen, the Red Wings’ first-round pick in June, has been impressive in his first pro camp.

Rasmussen, a 6-foot-6, 221-pound forward, has been effective around the net, and showed any concerns about his skating might not be valid.

“I like him, he’s big, smooth skater,” Blashill said.

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Rasmussen has learned one big takeaway from an NHL camp.

“It’s kind of a faster game here,” said Rasmussen, who’ll play one exhibition game and be returned to junior hockey in Tri-City (WHL).

“Just the pace. Hockey is hockey wherever you go, but up here, the pace (stands out). Everyone is fast and quick.”

Rasmussen has soaked up knowledge from as many veterans as possible.

“I’m happy to up here and competing against these guys,” Rasmussen said. “It’s been real good so far.”

Blashill wants the camp to be a “measuring stick” for Rasmussen.

“Even in the skate test today, where was he compared to the NHL guys,” Blashill said. “What was his highest number compared to the NHL guys? I’d make sure I have that number to know the things I need to work on.

“For young players who’ve had a ton of success, you don’t realize as you move up the pyramid how hard it is.


“When you come to main camp, you get a realization that there are some real good hockey players here and I have a lot of work to do.”

Ice chips

Niklas Kronwall (back spasms) didn’t skate Sunday and will not play in Monday’s intra-squad Red-White scrimmage.

“We’ll take precaution and make sure we have him ready for Game 1 (of the regular season) against Minnesota,” Blashill said.

…The plan is for Henrik Zetterberg to center between Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist to begin the schedule. Tatar and Nyquist struggled to produce offensively most of last season, and the Red Wings need steadier production this time around.

“Certainly we need them if they’re going to play as a line again, they’ll have to score and produce, there’s no question,” Blashill said.

“It’s always important to judge in totality and at the end of the year Tats and Nyke had pretty good years. We need them to produce and we need a fast start — but we also need to win as many games as possible throughout the season.”