The Detroit Red Wings’ 0-3-2 start to the 2018-19 season can largely be chalked up to the abundance of injuries on their blue line, but as veterans return to the back end, not every kid deserves a demotion.
The Red Wings started the season with four rookies on defense, icing Dennis Cholowski, Libor Sulak, Filip Hronek, and Joe Hicketts in game one. That group had combined for five NHL games entering the season, all of which belonged to Hicketts. Veterans Danny DeKeyser and Trevor Daley rounded out the blue line.
Nick Jensen and Niklas Kronwall have also seen time through the first five games given that Daley, Cholowski, and DeKeyser have all suffered injuries early on.
At this rate, the blue line will be a patchwork all season long, but when the backend inevitably gets back to full health, a few rookies have made the case to stick with the club for the long haul. This week, The Grind Line looks at who those rookies are.
Jacob Messing: Dennis Cholowski
Cholowski was an off-the-radar pick when the Red Wings drafted him 20th overall in 2016. He has quickly made a name for himself and climbed the ranks from an undersized kid to a growing man. He was notably strong during the Red Wings first three games before an unspecified injury held him out of the last two contests.
It’s still extremely premature, but his showing thus far has warranted an extended look even as veterans return to the lineup.
— Detroit Red Wings (@DetroitRedWings) October 14, 2018
At 20 years old, he’s among the youngest defensemen in the game but has shown poise and an understanding beyond his years. Growing pains will be evident—and likely plentiful—with his surrounding cast, but given the rebuild in Detroit, his learning curve wouldn’t destroy a season already slipping away from the Red Wings.
He has jumped into the play with an offensive mindset and has been stable in his own zone as an active shot-blocker undeterred by superstar opponents. Through just three games he’s shown the makings of Detroit’s next No. 1 defenseman.
Keeping him around to learn from mistakes, deal with the daily grind, and gain valuable experience will go further than a full season in the AHL. NHL defenseman need time to learn their position and he deserves that chance this season.
Rachel Anderson: Libor Sulak
Libor Sulak has become one of my favorite upcoming players to watch. He’s a fine balance between smooth skating and grit, something the Red Wings need. Though Sulak has barely played any North American hockey, he skates at the caliber expected at the NHL level. He has a strong net-front presence. He’s been known to jump into the rushes and get involved at a more two-way level, which is ideal for Detroit right now.
Sulak is extremely fast and can also score. He’s got a powerful wrister and pretty accurate aim as well.
“If you can skate like that, you better join [the rush]. I wish I had a quarter of his speed,” Thomas Vanek told MLive’s Ansar Khan during the preseason. “He was great. Hopefully he can keep this up. It definitely helps our team.”
Detroit prospect Libor Sulak is a mobile defenseman who can really skate. Here's a great goal from the Liiga season that shows his strong straight-line speed and powerful acceleration. #RedWings #LGRW pic.twitter.com/MGMLUSGlhP
— Marco Bombino (@marco_bombino) April 6, 2018
Speaking to Marcus Kinney, Director of Strength and Conditioning for the Red Wings’ affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins, Kinney pointed out that Sulak and the other youth are far more physical and apt to jump into the fray. The physical, hard-hitting, board-battling play of their style is something Detroit needs in order to boost their offensive confidence as well as their defensive strength.
Sulak, being a large body in front of the net with a very wide reach, is able to cover a large area while remaining alert enough to jump into an offensive role quickly. At 24, he’s older than the other prospects, but that experience and maturity argue his case. If any defensemen are to remain in Detroit, I think they should keep the quick and physical style brought by Sulak.
Likelihood for Seventh Spot: Sulak
With six veterans already signed—Green, Daley, Jensen, Kronwall, DeKeyser and Ericsson—the seventh spot will likely be used as a transitional role. That transition would result in a rookie sitting out regularly, which isn’t beneficial to the development of a Cholowski or Hronek, who are believed to have the highest ceilings of the four rookies.
That leaves the experienced Sulak and the undersized Hicketts in the mix for the seventh spot. The transitional role would likely be used between the rookie, an aging and aching Kronwall, and the often-overlooked Jensen.
After spending last season in the Finnish Elite League, Sulak is still getting accustomed to the smaller North American ice surface, which creates a tighter game with less time and space. But his mobility and offensive instincts should help straighten the learning curve soon.
Sulak had a strong season last year with nine goals and 32 points in 42 games, placing him ninth in defensive scoring. His experience playing against highly skilled, grown men should go a long way for the Red Wings. He’s just one of three defensemen to have suited up in all five games this season and leads all Red Wings skaters in total ice time.
Overall, Sulak has shown more poise than the 22-year-old Hicketts, who’s made a career of silencing critics of his undersized frame. Hicketts is still young and would benefit from regular time in Grand Rapids.
In the end, each rookie brings his own style and coach Jeff Blashill could be eyeing offense, defense or something else when blue line regenerates and the decision comes.
Which rookie do you think has played his way into an expanded role this season? Comment below.