SUNRISE — Luke Witkowski doesn’t remember the exact scenario but he knows Jon Cooper first switched him to forward in the middle of a game three years ago.
Either due to injuries or penalties, the Lightning needed more forwards. Cooper looked down the bench and asked if Witkowski, naturally a defenseman, could play right wing. Witkowski said yeah. What else was he going to say?
“I always say whatever I need to do to get in the lineup or stick in this league, I’m going to do it,” he said.
In five seasons, the 27-year-old has never played a full season in the NHL. His high is 34 games.
Witkowski went on to play 10 straight games at forward in 2017 and then signed with Detroit as both forward and defenseman. That ability to play both ways is part of what appealed to the Lightning in bringing him back into the organization this summer. He has played both this preseason, and was at forward Thursday night against Florida.
Over the past couple of years, Witkowski has gotten more comfortable playing forward. The hard part is when he plays both within a single game. That switch from automatically skating forwards vs backwards takes a quick recalibration of instincts.
“I’m playing fourth line forward, so it’s just skating as hard as I can trying to hit,” he said. “You don’t have to think too much.”
The Lightning is taking a fresh look at Witkowski this preseason. They know him but haven’t seen him within their system in two years.
Assistant coach Derek Lalonde observed Witkowski has had an impact at both positions. Not bad for someone who didn’t even play forward as a kid.
“I started playing forward in the NHL and I’ve only done it for 60-some games,” he said. “It’s not the easiest place to learn, but I’m trying to make the most of it.”