Red Wings' Dennis Cholowski emerging as future star while playing key role now

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Dennis Cholowski

Detroit – Nearing the seven-minute mark of the first period, the Hurricanes were outshooting the lackluster Red Wings 6-0.

Dennis Cholowski attacked.

Advancing with the puck and Wings’ forwards into the Hurricanes’ zone, Cholowski stopped about a third of the way in from the blue line. He let a crisp snap shot rip.

Left wing Teuvo Tervainen blocked it.

The Hurricanes snapped into transition, back toward Jimmy Howard.

For a 20-year-old rookie defenseman in his seventh NHL game, it presented a trying moment.

Cholowski had put his positioning at considerable risk, attempting to muster a shot and maybe a scoring chance, on a night the Red Wings lacked energy, let alone offensive punch.

As he jumped to recover, the attacking Hurricanes put Cholowski a few long, brisk strides behind them.

More: Wings pay for lethargic loss with physical practice

But, by the time they got to Howard, Cholowski covered an attacker and may have helped hurry the shot.

In the seemingly endless circumstance of “should I stay or should I go” that marks the early seasons of an offensive defenseman’s NHL career, Cholowski had risked greatly, at a moment of need for his team.

He avoided disaster.

Better to have gotten the shot through, certainly. But, with good anticipation of the play and strong skating, it was not as if he left his goal crease abandoned.

Cholowski made it back.

He is emerging as a player of considerable potential for a franchise desperate for stars.

Amid a chaotic first nine games in which the struggling Red Wings saw all five of its veteran defensemen injured and compiled its worst start in 33 years, Cholowski is a revelation.

His generally effective defense, coupled with strong skating and passing mark the early moments of his NHL career.

Cholowski needs to refine his gap-closing skills, the ability to use proximity to an opponent to limit his effectiveness. But the 2016 first round pick, 20th overall, is likely in the lineup, to stay.

Future star?

The dividend, at least through seven games, is early evidence Cholowski seems to be joining Dylan Larkin as the two prospects most likely to achieve stardom for the Wings, near the beginning of what looks like a long struggle to restore the luster of a Stanley Cup contender.

On a night when the Red Wings were lousy and seemed apathetic for two periods, Cholowski logged Nicklas Lidstrom-quantity minutes against the Hurricanes.

Dennis Cholowski: “Just try to help the team in any way I can, whether that be defending or trying to get a couple goals.”

At 25:40, his time on ice led the Wings’ defensemen by 4:29, an unusually large gap.

While four veteran defensemen produced eight giveaways, Cholowski had none.

He blocked two shots and fired two on goal in five attempts.

For his performance, Jeff Blashill is awarding prime minutes, so far. Cholowski is averaging 22:14 time on ice.

Thrown into the inferno of the start of the Red Wings’ season, in the early going, he is emerging as an essential quantity.

After matching Lidstrom’s scoring through the first six games of their careers, with five points (Cholowski, two goals, three assists; Lidstrom one goal, four assists.), Cholowski has fallen a point behind.

He garnered none against the Hurricanes, while Lidstrom added his fifth assist of the season in his seventh game, Oct. 19, 1991 against the Nordiques.

An unfair comparison, no doubt, for a young man. But, after the failure of first-round picks Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith to provide anything approaching a replacement for Lidstrom, who retired six years ago, Cholowski is the next possibility.

In the best development of the first three weeks of an enormously challenging season, Cholowski is providing some evidence he may exceed expectations he may top out as a second-pairing defenseman.

He presents a rare sight for the franchise: A 20-year-old defenseman relied on for top minutes and generating offense.

But, Cholowski has quickly gained trust.

“I don’t think it’s anything in particular really,” he said, seeing his development as progressing from his performance in the prospects tournament and preseason.

“Just try to keep it going. Just try to help the team in any way I can, whether that be defending or trying to get a couple goals.”

More: Red Wings' Anthony Mantha trying to remedy season-opening funk

Such ambitions a rarely expressed as forthrightly by a young Wings defenseman.

As much as Smith’s talents seemed capable of fulfilling the hope, he never quite harnessed them.

Cholowski seems secure in the belief he can both score and defend, now, in the NHL. And, he is demonstrating the abilities for a franchise bashful about prospects and committed to long marinating of young talent.

It is a mix the club sorely needs, whether he eventually produces stardom or not.

“He looks great,” said Mike Green, who could return to play Friday after a virus that deprived him of starting the season.

“Such great talent, and he provides multiple dimensions back there; very diverse, which is what we need,” said Green, whose scoring and playmaking the Wings hope Cholowski emulates.

Looking for opportunities

Cholowski said he entered the season with no particular priority for developing his game. He says he seeks an overall effort and overall improvement, building on the success of the past.

“At this point, we’re not winning,” he said. “The goal is to just try to help the team win, any way I can.”

Dennis Cholowski is averaging 22:14 of ice time this season.

So, he defends, and when he handles the puck he searches for offense from the back end, a need for several seasons, especially with Green out of the lineup and Niklas Kronwall’s knees limiting his mobility.

“It’s just trying to pick your spots whenever you can,” Cholowski said. “You can’t go every time.

“But there are times when you can jump up into the rush, and I’ve got to be smart about it and try to stay sound defensively, too.

“But, you know, when you see an opportunity. You’ve got to grasp it.”

Along with a dramatic development of his body, Cholowski’s voice got a lot deeper the last two years, too.

He speaks directly, with tightly constructed, matter-of-fact sentences that seem to spring from the sensibilities of the engineer he might well have been, if not for the hockey.

His father John is an engineer, and Cholowski’s calculus and physics classes his freshman year at St. Cloud State were intended to start an engineering major.

He admits he is still interested in reading in that area.

“You know, when I was going to university, there was a little more,” he said. “Not so much, nowadays. Not as much time.

“Still an interest.”

But he and the Red Wings decided that a move to major junior hockey would further his development.

“Going from college to juniors just gave me a lot more games to play in. It built up my experience and confidence in playing in all situations,” he said.

A growth spurt as a youth left Cholowski with a large frame requiring some back-filling.

He has become a Metro Detroiter, spending the last two seasons in the area, where, he joked, the organization could “keep an eye on me,” and he mixed with other NHL players in the area amid intense offseason training.

“I was out here in Detroit the last two summers just training and working hard every day in the gym and skating, trying to build up my body as much as I could.”

It has taken lots of hours. But talk of the need to grow into his body have ebbed.

“There were a lot of hours to get in,” he said of the toil. “Everyone does it. That’s what you have to do to stay ahead and be the best you can be.

“I was definitely willing to do it. I was willing to do whatever it took, and I’m glad.”

His advanced mobility is rooted in the strong habits of youth, when Cholowski did a lot of Power Skating.

“That was priority number one when I was at that age,” he said. “You are trying to build up your skating more than anything else, and I just tried to keep it going as I grew older.”

At 20, seven games into his NHL career, Cholowski is about 193 games short of a standard mark for developing defensemen.

But, the Red Wings already know they have a keeper.

Fans have reacted.

On social media, one sees the query, “Who’s Chychrun?”

It is a reference to Ken Holland’s decision to drop down in the first round of the 2016 draft, as part of trading Pavel Datsyuk’s contract to the Coyotes.

The Coyotes received the Wings' pick, at 16th, and selected Jakob Chychrun, who has played well in the first 118 games of his career, amid a couple of injuries.

The Wings moved down to 20th and took an 18-year-old puck mover who needed to grow into his body.

About Cholowski, the doubters can feel considerably more reassured.

How integral he is to improving some particularly dire circumstances in the long history of the Red Wings is a matter of considerable hope.