How Detroit Red Wings make costly decision to give up on first-round picks

Detroit Free Press

Dennis Cholowski, the Detroit Red Wings‘ first-round pick in 2016, was in the news again this week, and not in a good way.

The Washington Capitals became the third NHL team to give up on the young defenseman, exposing him on waivers. He was claimed by the Seattle Kraken, who ditched Cholowski at the start of the season after making him their pick from the Wings in July’s expansion draft.

Cholowski once projected to be a key player for the Wings, but instead he washed out of the system last summer, as did 2015 first-round pick Evgeny Svechnikov. The Wings spent multiple seasons trying to develop both players, but addressing the topic of first-round picks in general Wednesday, coach Jeff Blashill noted a truth: It’s hard to predict how an 18-year-old will turn out.

“They’ve usually had a lot of success, and there’s lots of hype around players the higher they’re picked,” Blashill said. “I think that’s unfair, but I understand why it happens. Being drafted is one way for teams to acquire assets. Once you are within the system, you have to prove that you are worthy of the draft pick per se, or that you’re somebody who can help the team win.”

[HITS AND MISSES: How Red Wings have fared in the first round since hitting on Dylan Larkin]

That’s certainly what Moritz Seider, the No. 6 overall pick in 2019, and Lucas Raymond, No. 4 overall in 2020, have done. There has been less to see from Filip Zadina (No. 6 in 2018) and Michael Rasmussen (No. 9 in 2017). Rasmussen has settled into a spot as a third-line center — a valuable role, but less than is usually expected of a top-10 selection — while Zadina is getting another chance to earn a role in the Wings’ top six forwards.

[AN OPPORTUNITY: Filip Zadina promoted to Wings’ top line, but it’s not why you may think]

“There’s a balance certainly between confidence and letting guys play through mistakes, and learning the correct habits, the winning habits, long term,” Blashill said. “One of the ways to correct habits is to make sure you either tell them, there’s some type of consequence — whether it’s verbal, video, ice time, that’s how you can correct habits. But at the same time, you have the opportunity for that player to lose confidence. Any time you’re hearing things that you’re doing wrong, or you’re seeing things that you’re doing wrong, or you don’t garner enough ice time, your confidence starts to slip.

“You can’t allow a player just to play and continue with habits that aren’t winning habits, but you have to be respectful of what it does to a player’s confidence when they get taught.”

The Wings tried to guide Cholowski’s development over three seasons, He’s an NHL-caliber skater and passer, but Cholowski never showed the assertiveness the Wings wanted. In July, general manager Steve Yzerman had enough and left Cholowski exposed in the expansion draft. The Kraken, after selecting him via octopus, gave up on Cholowski and placed him on waivers Oct. 13, where he was claimed by the Capitals. Cholowski debuted with Washington on Nov. 21, and, in four months with the Capitals, he appeared in seven games, tallying one assist, three shots on net, and a minus-4 rating.

The Wings acquired Cholowski at the 2016 draft. When Pavel Datsyuk headed to the KHL with a year to go on his contract, then-general manager Ken Holland rid the Wings of Datsyuk’s $7.5 million in dead cap space by making a deal with the Arizona Coyotes: They got the Wings’ pick at No. 16, and the Wings got the Coyotes’ first- and second-round picks — Nos. 20 and 53. The second-round pick was used on Filip Hronek, who has become a top-four defenseman. The freed cap space was used to sign center Frans Nielsen, who was bought out last summer in the last year of his contract. (Nielsen also made news Wednesday morning, when he helped Denmark win its first-ever Olympic hockey game, scoring on a penalty shot on a backhand, top-shelf move that he often used in NHL shootouts.)

Cholowski lasted five years in the organization. Svechnikov lasted six, but that included an entire season lost to a knee injury. It was enough time for the Wings to conclude neither former first-round pick was going to help the rebuild.

Contact Helene St. James at 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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