By: Will Burchfield
With Luke Witkowski in the lineup, Jeff Blashill generally believes the Red Wings are a better team.
His straight-ahead, hard-nosed style of play both energizes his teammates and keeps the opposition honest. He might be a dying breed in today’s NHL, but Blashill nonetheless values his presence.
In fact, it’s his old-school snarl that Blashill most appreciates.
Here’s the problem: Witkowski seems to be doomed to the penalty box whenever he steps on the ice. Ever since he set off a bench brawl with the Flames back in November, an incident for which he received a 10-game suspension, the scruffy forward appears to have drawn the scrutiny of officials around the league.
What little leeway he had is lost.
Midway through Detroit’s 3-2 overtime loss to Philadelphia on Tuesday night, Witkowski barreled into Jakub Voracek just after the Flyers forward had moved the puck. It looked like a clean open-ice hit, a good example of a physical player finishing his check. This is something Witkowski takes pride in.
But up went the referee’s arm. And to the box went Witkowski, assessed a minor for charging.
The Wings killed off the ensuing power play, but this is becoming a concerning trend. Last week, in Detroit’s 4-2 loss to Dallas, Witkowski was called for two penalties for which he clearly wasn’t guilty. The Stars scored on both power plays.
Afterward, Witkwoski wondered — in good natured fashion — if he had a bullseye on his back.
“One of those refs has got it out for me, I think,” he said with a chuckle.
Add another to the list. It’s not vindictive or premeditated, but it certainly appears officials have stripped Witkowksi of the benefit of the doubt. He barely grazed the Stars’ Martin Hanzal last week — he did his best to avoid him, in fact, as Hanzal was in a vulnerable position — and he was called for elbowing.
Fair or not, deserved or not, this is the cost of being a player with a reputation. And it may put Witkowski’s lineup spot in jeopardy.
“Yeah,” Blashill acknowledged, “we have to watch it. If it continues to be the case, whether we think they’re good calls or not good calls, we have to watch it 100 percent.”
It’s a conundrum for both the coach and the player. Witkowksi’s role is to be physical, but his physicality is being deemed illegal. If he dials it back, he’s not effective. Yet if he doesn’t, he risks putting his team in a jam.
For Blashill, it’s important that Witkowski keeps his edge despite assuming the suspicion of the officials.
“Yeah, (it’s a) concern for me. It seems to be guys that have ref’d him in the minors. … But I know Luke has to play the way he plays in order to be successful,” Blashill said.
The soft-spoken Witkowski isn’t a dirty player. He doesn’t throw elbows, he doesn’t stick out knees, he doesn’t run opponents. His lengthy suspension was the result of a mental mistake as much as a physical one.
“I’d like to think I’m pretty honest,” he said.
But Witkowski’s rap sheet suggests something else, and this is the standard by which officials are judging him. If their arms continue to go up when they should logically stay down, Blashill will have to seriously reconsider Witkowski’s spot in the lineup.
His tenacity serves no purpose when he’s sitting in the box.