Bolt Prospect of the Week: April 23, 2014

With the end of the Lightning and Crunch seasons, we conclude our Bolt Prospect of the Week award, an honor (virtually) given to one Tampa Bay Lightning prospect for their recent contributions on and off the ice.

The Bolt Prospect of the Week for April 23, 2014 is … Luke Witkowski, D, Syracuse Crunch (AHL – USA).

Twenty-eight Bolt Prospect of the Week awards have been handed out this season, usually for offensive production or goaltending mastery. Not this week.

This week’s award goes to a rarely appreciated player type, a stay-at-home defenseman.

Luke Witkowski finished his rookie pro season last week, taking another step toward his dream of playing in the NHL. Not every prospect can step right into the NHL. Most have to be grown, groomed, and guided along the developmental path to the big show. Witkowski, who is now six seasons removed from his draft year, was named the Syracuse Crunch’s Most Improved Player for the year last week. To celebrate, he scored his second goal of the season on Sunday, though it didn’t make any highlight reels.

Witkowski threw the puck at the net and it banged off a defenseman and by Hamilton’s Dustin Tokarski. His other goal this year was scored when a goalie misplayed his point shot and had it bank off his stick and rainbow over his head into the net.

Hey, they don’t ask how, they ask how many. And that’s probably the unfortunate part of a stay-at-home defenseman’s style – stats aren’t important.

Witkowski’s value to the Crunch wasn’t found on the scoresheet. Through all the defensive injuries, call-ups, and other roster changes on the Crunch backline, Witkowski became one of the few constants, logging larger-than-expected minutes. At one point this season, he and later-traded Matt Taormina logged every other shift it seemed, as they were the only dependable pair coach Rob Zettler could ice.

This was a far cry from original expectations for Witkowski, which was to wade into his professional career on the third pair like an angler into a murky river (fishing references for Luke’s other first love). The positive effect is that he’s better prepared for his second year with Syracuse, when he’ll be a top-4 defenseman from the start.

Eventually, Witkowski should make the NHL as a dependable, strong-character third pair defenseman who’s strong on the penalty kill and in high-traffic areas. He’ll keep the opposition honest and stick up for his teammates.

Just don’t look for him on the scoresheet; his value is found elsewhere.

Honorable Mention: Jonathan Marchessault, W (Syracuse, AHL), Cedric Paquette, C (Tampa Bay, NHL), Dylan Blujus, D (North Bay, OHL).

2013-2014 Prospect of the Week winners:

April 15: Andrey Vasilevskiy, G, (Salavat Yulaev Ufa, KHL, Russia).
April 9: Jonathan Marchessault, W, (Syracuse Crunch, AHL, USA).
March 31: Adam Wilcox, G, (Minnesota Golden Gophers, NCAA, USA).
March 24: Andrey Vasilevskiy, G, (Salavat Yulaev Ufa, KHL, Russia).
March 17: Jonathan Drouin, C, (Halifax Mooseheads, NCAA).
March 10: Jonathan Drouin, C, (Halifax Mooseheads, NCAA).
March 3: Matt Peca, C, (Quinnipiac Bobcats, NCAA).
February 25: Kristers Gudlevskis, G, (Team Latvia, IIHF).
February 17: Brian Hart, W, (Harvard Crimson, NCAA, USA).
February 10: Matt Peca, C, (Quinnipiac Bobcats, NCAA, USA).
February 3: Adam Wilcox, G, (Minnesota Golden Gophers, NCAA, USA).
January 27: Dylan Blujus, D, (North Bay Battalion, OHL, Canada).
January 20: Mark Barberio, D, (Tampa Bay Lightning, NHL, USA).
January 13: Kristers Gudlevskis, G, (Syracuse Crunch, AHL, USA).
January 6: Ondrej Palat, LW, (Tampa Bay Lightning, NHL, USA).
December 17: Tyler Johnson, C, (Tampa Bay Lightning, NHL, USA).
December 10: Ondrej Palat, W, (Tampa Bay Lightning, NHL, USA).
December 3: Cedric Paquette, C, (Syracuse Crunch, AHL, USA).
November 26: Tyler Johnson, C, (Tampa Bay Lightning, NHL, USA).
November 19: Jonathan Drouin, C/W, (Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL, Canada).
November 13: Jonathan Drouin, C/W, (Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL, Canada).
November 4: Nikita Kucherov, W, (Syracuse Crunch, AHL, USA).
October 29: Kristers Gudlevskis, G, (Syracuse Crunch, AHL, USA).
October 24: Henri Ikonen, W, (Kingston Frontenacs, OHL, Canada).
October 16: Nikita Kucherov, W, (Syracuse Crunch, AHL, USA).
October 9: Henri Ikonen, W, (Kingston Frontenacs, OHL, Canada).
October 1: Andrey Vasilevskiy, G, (Salavat Yulaev Ufa, KHL, Russia).
September 24: Adam Erne, W, Tampa Bay (NHL) and Quebec (QMJHL)