Let’s call it like it is: the players that the Detroit Red Wings offered up in the expansion draft certainly weren’t a batch of all-stars. When the most recognizable name is Svechnikov – and it’s not even the one everybody knows – you knew this group wasn’t going to yield somebody that could truly move the needle for the Kraken in terms of jersey sales. And yet, despite all of this, general manager Ron Francis’s pick from Detroit was one of the most unknown commodities on their list: Dennis Cholowski.
As somebody who covers the Red Wings here at THW, I have had the privilege of watching Cholowski play since he turned pro ahead of the 2018-19 season. While he is not the sexiest name taken by the Kraken, he offers some serious upside that should not be overlooked. Allow me to shed some light on why this could prove to be a sneaky-good selection by Francis and the Kraken.
Former First Round Pick with Potential
The Red Wings selected Cholowski with the 20th pick of the 2016 draft. He split the following two seasons with St. Cloud State of the NCAA and the Western Hockey League (WHL) and during that time, he cemented himself as an offensive defenseman who likes to push the pace. Through 69 games in the WHL, he had 14 goals and 66 points.
The following season, Cholowski made the Red Wings’ roster out of training camp. I was lucky enough to attend the Red Wings’ season-opener that season, and I witnessed the young defenseman score his first goal/point in the NHL. While it was nice to see his parents’ excitement as they were shown on the jumbotron at Little Caesars Arena, what stood out to me was the way he played despite being a fresh-faced kid seeing his first action in the NHL.
Cholowski’s greatest attribute is his ability to distribute the puck. When he’s on his game, like he was that night in Detroit, he makes crisp stretch passes that lead to offensive possession. The confidence he shows when he moves the puck is a solid indicator of where he’s at on a given night. If he’s moving the puck quickly and effectively, he’s on his game; if you can see him weighing his options with the puck on his stick, he’s getting in his own way, and he’s likely going to make a mistake or two.
You could say any of these things about almost any offensive defenseman in the world of hockey. Confidence is key for players like this, and it’s painfully obvious when they don’t have it. That being said, there’s something to be said about the potential that is undeniably still there with Cholowski. Whether it’s at even-strength or on the power play, he can be the catalyst for everything that’s happening on the ice. He has shown that time and time again in the American Hockey League with the Grand Rapids Griffins, and he has shown flashes of it at the NHL level. If given the opportunity with the Kraken, a wise man would bet that he’ll flash that potential once again.
The reason Cholowski did not stick with the Red Wings for the rest of the 2018-19 season or any season beyond is because he is a liability in his own end. The Red Wings prioritize two-way play in all of their players, and this specific player has had trouble rounding out his edges in the defensive end. Whether it’s turnovers or general unawareness in the defensive zone, he gave Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill any and every reason to keep him stapled to the bench, which inevitably led to a demotion to the AHL.
In the AHL, Cholowski has found some success. In 69 games with the Griffins, he has six goals and 35 points, including 10 points in 13 games this season. When he’s not collecting points, he’s showing great instincts and flashing that offensive potential that makes him such an exciting young player. He was the main “quarterback” of the Griffins’ power play, facilitating offense from the back end with authority and making everyone in Detroit wonder “why can’t he do that here?” Even his defensive play showed promise during his various stints with Grand Rapids.
The problem is that it all seemed to go away as soon as Cholowski returned to the Red Wings. His offense has to be good enough to make up for the blemishes in his defensive game, but it simply hasn’t been. Through 104 games in the NHL, he has 10 goals and 27 points.
A “4A” Player
Any Mariners fans out there will understand what it means when a player is described as a “4A” player. The phrase refers to a player that is too good for Triple-A (the highest minor-league level in baseball), but also not quite effective enough at the major league level. This describes Cholowski perfectly: he’s a dominant AHL player, but he can’t quite carry that over to the NHL.
With the Red Wings’ lack of talent (as evidenced by their bereft list of exposed players), it’s fair to wonder whether or not that has played a part in Cholowski’s struggles at the NHL level. A fresh start with a team that can do some legitimate damage – especially in a division as weak as the Pacific Division projects to be – could be just what the doctor ordered for this player. He is still just 23 years old; his potential has not magically disappeared, and defensemen generally take longer than forwards to reach their peak. Long story short: this player is far from a lost cause.
How the Kraken handle this player will go a long way towards determining whether this pick is a bust, and whether this player is a bust as well. If handled correctly, and with a little luck sprinkled in as well, Cholowski could become a mainstay on Seattle’s power play and log a decent chunk of minutes on the middle or bottom defensive pairing. While the Red Wings were offering some more “proven” commodities in this expansion draft, Francis and the gang decided to bet on this player’s youth and upside, and that’s not a bad bet to make.
Take care of him, Seattle. He’s all yours now.
I am a Western Michigan University alum whose passion for hockey knows no limits. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Catch me and my fellow Red Wings writers’ YouTube show “The Hockey Writers Grind Line” which drops every Saturday.