Dennis Cholowski no longer worries about impressing his bosses.
He cares how he plays, of course, but he’s determined not to let doubts distract him from his mission to make the Detroit Red Wings.
He’ll get another chance Tuesday when the Wings play the first of a mini-series in Nashville against the Predators. It’s been nearly five years since the Wings selected Cholowski at 20th in the 2016 draft, and Sunday marked his 89th NHL appearance. Cholowski, 23, is an NHL-caliber skater with high-end offensive instincts, but he has yet to play a full season because of deficiencies on the defensive side.
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“You have to accentuate your positives and his positives is the offense side of the puck,” coach Jeff Blashill said Monday. “The more elite he can become at that — and it’s not an easy thing — but the more elite he can become at that, then you are probably allowed more mistakes. The less offensive plays you make, the less mistakes you can make.
“He’s grown a little bit on the power play. Some of that comes with confidence. But that will be a big part of his ability to stay in the lineup here, is how good he can run a power play.”
Cholowski had 12:27 of ice time Saturday in his season debut, but there are a few reasons for that. The Wings used seven defenseman — which makes minutes scarcer — and there were only four minutes of power plays, of which he logged 1:46. If he can distinguish himself running a man-advantage unit, Cholowski may avoid the fate that’s befallen him the last two seasons, which he has finished in Grand Rapids.
Cholowski began this season on the taxi squad, but that was just a holding spot until he could be sent to Grand Rapids. He had eight points in 11 games with the Griffins, and when Blashill and general manager Steve Yzerman searched for solutions to boost the second power play unit, Cholowski got the nod. Cholowski used the nearly year-long gap between games, caused by the pandemic, to add muscle to his 6-foot-2, 197-pound body, and that has led to improved play.
“He’s done a good job on the defensive side in two areas: One, using his body and two hands on his stick to win battles, and two, not allowing the puck to get through him,” Blashill said.
Less visible is the growth Cholowski has shown mentally.
“Last year I was kind of worried about a lot of things and worried about impressing and proving [myself to] people,” he said. “It was wanting to prove to people, whether it be on the D side or the offensive side, what I can do and kind of getting in my own head a little bit.
“This year I’m more calm and mentally I just think about going out and playing each shift and not worrying too much.”
That has, in its own way, been reinforced by Blashill’s message to Cholowski, which was simply to play good hockey.
“Part of the growth progress with Dennis, Michael Rasmussen, those type of players, it’s learning to control what you can control and not playing afraid to make a mistake, regardless of what the message is or isn’t from the GM and the coach,” Blashill said. “It’s going out and controlling what you can control.”
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The Wings held the 16th pick going into the 2016 but former GM Ken Holland flipped first-round picks with the Arizona Coyotes as part of a deal to unload the contract of Pavel Datsyuk, whose decision to return to Russia saddled the Wings with a $7.5 million salary cap hit. (The Coyotes selected defenseman Jakob Chychrun, who has 101 points and a minus-26 rating in 265 games). Holland also got a second-round pick (53rd), and that was used on Filip Hronek, who has established himself as a key part of the rebuild.
Cholowski has 24 career NHL points and a minus-47 rating. If he learns to make beneficial decisions with the puck, he may yet find a fit with the Wings.
“It’s coming to the point where I have to prove it every night,” he said. “I just have to continue to play with confidence and show them what value I have.”
Contact Helene St. James at email@example.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 Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.