In 2016, the Detroit Red Wings were a playoff team with a roster that was worth gambling a bit with the future to improve the present.
It was that summer Pavel Datsyuk announced he was leaving with a year left on his contract, leaving then-general manager Ken Holland with a $7.5 million, salary-cap headache.
The deal was made during the first round. Holland wanted the cap space to pursue Steven Stamkos, who at that time was a few days from unrestricted free agency. The Wings were looking to shore up a roster that included veterans Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Niklas Kronwall and Mike Green, and youngsters Dylan Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou.
Stamkos ended up staying with Tampa Bay Lightning and the Wings instead signed Frans Nielsen. While that decision hasn’t held up well — Nielsen has struggled the past three seasons — the saving grace of flipping the contract was who the Wings got in the second round.
This is the first of a five-part series evaluating the most recent drafts leading up to the 2021 event. As is the benefit with hindsight, there are instances where the Wings could have made a better choice.
THIS YEAR’S DRAFT: Here’s where the Wings’ draft pick from the Capitals falls
D Dennis Cholowski
Draft year: 12 goals, 28 assists for 40 points with Chilliwack (British Columbia Hockey League), and four goals, 11 assists in 20 playoff games.
Scouting report: Smooth skater with high-end offensive abilities.
Wingspan: Cholowski made the opening lineup in 2018, and at Christmas ranked second among team defensemen with 14 points — and first on the team with a minus-11 rating. He finished that season in Grand Rapids. His 2019-20 play reflected what an awful season it was for the team (the Wings finished 17-49-5, in last place), with Cholowski recording eight points and a minus-26 rating in 36 games. He appeared in just 16 games (three points, minus-1) this season, spending a chunk of it on the taxi squad and otherwise playing 13 games (10 points) with the Griffins. Cholowski has 27 points and a minus-47 rating in 104 career games.
Cholowski is an NHL-caliber skater who can make plays with the puck, but the issue has been his ability to recognize when a play is too much of a risk. He’s repeatedly been told he needs to show more assertiveness.
General manager Steve Yzerman will have to decide if Cholowski is worth protecting in the Seattle expansion draft. There’s certainly still promise there, and it’s worth remembering Cholowski is still only 23. It takes some players longer than others to figure out things.
In hindsight: The Coyotes used the pick they got from the Wings, at No. 16, on defenseman Jacob Chychrun. He has 121 points and a minus-26 rating in 290 games. The best pick made after the Wings selected at No. 20 is forward Alex DeBrincat (39th, Chicago Blackhawks). The Farmington Hills native scored 41 goals in 2018-19, and 32 in 2020-21. Of his 56 points this past season, 11 were against the Wings.
F Givani Smith
Draft year: 23 goals, 19 assists for 42 points, along 146 penalty minutes, in 65 games with Guelph (Ontario Hockey League).
Scouting report: Physical player with infectious attitude and energy.
Wingspan: He has appeared in 37 games over the past two seasons, recording three goals, four assists and 30 penalty minutes. He engaged in three fights this season, one of which was against Florida’s Riley Stillman in retaliation for a hit on Larkin. Would have been interesting to see what Smith would have done had he been in the lineup either of the two games against the Stars immediately following Jamie Benn’s season-ending cheap shot on Larkin. Smith brings a physical dimension the Wings lack.
In hindsight: Defenseman Adam Fox (66th, New York Rangers) played 70 games as a rookie in 2019-20. He led all NHL defensemen with 42 assists this season and is a finalist for the Norris Trophy.
D Filip Hronek
Draft year: Four assists in 40 games with Hradec Kralove in the top Czech league.
Scouting report: Good skater, competitive and strong on the puck.
Wingspan: This was who the Wings selected with the Coyotes’ pick. Hronek, 23, is a top-four defenseman who plays with a grit beyond his 6-foot, 183-pound frame. He’s a good passer and shooter. He led the team with 26 points this season, and while he also had a team-worst minus-8 rating, that reflects being tasked with playing against opposing top lines.
D Alfons Malmstrom
Draft year: Two goals, six assists for eight points in 41 games with Orebro in junior league.
Scouting report: Good mobility.
Wingspan: No longer in the system.
Hindsight: Defenseman Noah Gregor (111th, San Jose Sharks) has 11 points in 58 games.
D Jordan Sambrook
Draft year: Nine goals, 18 assists for 27 points in 67 games with Erie (Ontario Hockey League).
Scouting report: Steady, decent puck mover.
Wingspan: No longer in the system.
In hindsight: Forward Jesper Bratt (162nd, New Jersey Devils) has 130 points in 231 career games.
G Filip Larsson
Draft year: 3.86 goals-against average and .872 save percentage in 19 games for Djurgardens jr. team.
Scouting report: Technically sound.
Wingspan: There was talk early on that Larsson had the goods to make it to the NHL, but that’s faded. After a solid season (1.95 goals-against average, .932 save percentage) at University of Denver in 2018-19, Larsson was supposed to battle for the starting job in Grand Rapids in 2019-20. He struggled to find his groove, posting a 4.01 GAA and .83 save percentage in just seven appearances, and recorded a 2.72 GAA and .910 save percentage in 10 games with the Toledo Walleye. He split this past season between lower levels in Scandinavia, posting a .883 save percentage in six games with Altuma (Sweden) and a .889 save percentage in 10 games with Frederikshavn (Denmark).
In hindsight: Not much to choose from, but defenseman Jeremy Davies (192nd, Nashville Predators) appeared in 16 games in 2021, recording one assist and a plus-3 rating.
F Mattias Elfstrom
Draft year: 11 goals and 20 assists for 31 points in 43 games with Malmo J20 (junior league in Sweden). Played 5 games for Malmo’s top Swedish league club.
Scouting report: Good size (6-4, 197 pounds).
Wingspan: No longer in the system.
In hindsight: Joachim Blichfeld (210th, San Jose Sharks) led San Jose’s AHL affiliate, the Barracuda, with 22 points and scored a goal in five appearances with the Sharks.
Need a gift for Father’s Day?
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).
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.