What Detroit Red Wings prospects Evgeny Svechnikov, Dennis Cholowski must do to make team

Detroit Free Press

Helene St. James
| Detroit Free Press

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One was described as a complete package, a combination of size, strength and skill. The other was extolled for his offensive instincts and fluid skating.

When the Detroit Red Wings begin training camp later this month to prepare for the 2021 season — a 56-game schedule expected to start  Jan. 13 — there will be a handful of new faces thanks to some savvy signings by general manager Steve Yzerman.

There will also be young faces eager to establish that they belong in the lineup.

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Among the latter group, two stand out: Forward Evgeny Svechnikov and defenseman Dennis Cholowski.

They are former first-round picks — Svechnikov went 19th overall in the 2015 draft and Cholowski, 20th in 2016. So far, neither has helped the rebuild. With rosters expected to expand from 21 to 23, plus the likelihood that teams will be allowed to carry a four-to-six team taxi squad, there’s a good chance both players will be in Detroit this season.

But the bigger question is whether they will be in the lineup.

Here is a look at each player, and what needs to happen for him to gain a foothold.

Evgeny Svechnikov

He was billed on draft night as an ideal mix of size, strength and skill, lauded for his ultra competitiveness. Svechnikov recorded 20 goals and 31 assists in 74 games in his first year of pro hockey, with the Grand Rapids Griffins. He capped that 2016-17 season with the Calder Cup, tallying five goals and seven assists in 19 games during the AHL playoffs.

Then it got bumpy.

[ Svechnikov must prove he fits with Wings in 2020-21 or else be exposed ]

Svechnikov (6-foot-3, 208 pounds) struggled in his second year, scoring just seven goals among 23 points in 57 games with the Griffins. He appeared in 14 games with the Wings in 2017-18, producing two goals and two assists. Then came a knee injury during an exhibition game in September 2018 that ended up costing Svechnikov the entire 2018-19 season.

Given how long he’d been off, Svechnikov actually looked pretty good in training camp in 2019.

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Then the Wings did something unusual.

They sent Svechnikov to Grand Rapids, where he had a goal and two assists in his first game. Then they called him up for a week, didn’t play him, and sent him back to the Griffins. That broke with a philosophy of not treating prospects like yo-yos, especially if they’re not even going to play. Svechnikov then was called up again later that same month, played four games — and sent back down the day before he was going to realize his dream and play in the NHL against his younger brother, Andrei, who the Carolina Hurricanes drafted second overall in 2018.

Svechnikov spent the rest of the season with the Griffins, recording 11 goals and 14 assists in 51 games.

Now, because of COVID-19, Svechnikov has endured another long layoff, leaving the Wings wondering what they will see when camp commences on Dec. 31.

“He’s had a really difficult journey with all the injuries,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “That is not easy. It can certainly change timelines. I really don’t know what to expect of Svech’s game. Until I see him in action, it’s hard to know how he’s recovered and how the amount to time he’s had to spend recovering has hindered his ability to be real effective. I really don’t know that.

“I know Svech works extremely hard, he’s a great person, he cares a ton. He wants to be a great player. I just don’t know where his game is at.”

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Svechnikov, 24, is no longer waiver exempt, so he will have to be on the roster. But to be in the lineup, he’ll have to elbow his way into the bottom six mix. He’ll need to play with physicality, be responsible in his own zone and show he can kill penalties.

Five years on, the Wings are still waiting on Svechnikov. He has two goals and two assists in 20 career NHL games. Meanwhile, the Vancouver Canucks drafted Brock Boeser at 23rd and he’s recorded 75 goals and 86 assists in 197 games. And the Philadelphia Flyers drafted Travis Konecny at 24th and he has 83 goals and 102 assists in 299 games.

Dennis Cholowski

There’s no question Cholowski (6-2, 197 pounds) has NHL-caliber skills. He’s a gifted skater with an eye for offensive chances who likes to have the puck. It’s why the Wings were comfortable flipping first-round picks with the Arizona Coyotes as part of a deal to get rid of the last year of Pavel Datsyuk’s contract after he left to return to Russia. Moving back from 16th to 20th, then-GM Ken Holland still landed a well-regarded prospect.

[ Cholowski must step up in this Red Wings rebuild, and soon ]

Cholowski, 22, seemed on a fast track when he made the Wings out of camp in 2018, emerging as a viable choice amid a slew of injuries.

The issue has been Cholowski’s assertiveness and decision-making with the puck. He was assigned to the Griffins in mid-February 2019 after racking up a team-worst minus-20 rating. He made the Wings again out of camp last season, but was sent to the minors in mid-December after posting just two assists and a minus-12 over the previous 12 games. Cholowski had eight points and a minus-26 rating in 36 games with the Wings last season, and 13 points in 30 games, with a minus-15 rating, with the Griffins.

In 88 career NHL games, Cholowski has nine goals, 15 assists, and a minus-46 rating.

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Cholowski faces heavy competition for a job after Yzerman brought in defenseman Marc Staal, Jon Merrill and Troy Stecher, but the Wings need more offense from their back end. That’s where Cholowski can help — provided he has improved at making decisions with the puck.

“I’d love it if Dennis came to camp and had a great camp and made our team better,” Blashill said. “I know he’s worked hard at his game and put himself in a good position. He has to be dynamic offensive and be accountable defensively.

“I talk about this all the time — we don’t want players that are going to make our team, we want players that are going to make our team better. If Dennis can make our team better, then we’re a better hockey team and our organization is in a better place.”

A Perfect Holiday Gift

What: “The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings.”

Author: Helene St. James, who has covered the Red Wings at the Detroit Free Press since 1996. Foreword by Chris Osgood, winner of three Stanley Cups as a Wings goaltender.

Publisher: Triumph Books.

Pages: 336 pages (paperback).

Price: $16.95.

Availability: Available in leading bookstores and online from booksellers, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

About the book: “The Big 50” brings to life the men and moments that made the Red Wings such a dynamic and iconic franchise for nearly a century. The book features never-before-told stories about the greats such as Howe, Yzerman, Lidstrom and Lindsay, the near-greats beloved by fans and the great memories of Fight Night, the Fabulous Fifties, the Team for the Ages, the Grind Line, The Joe and much more.

Get it signed! For a personalized copy of “The Big 50,” contact St. James at hstjames@freepress.com

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail. 

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