Niyo: Red Wings' mission is moving Dennis Cholowski from surviving to thriving

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Red Wings defenseman Dennis Cholowski has just six points and is a minus-11 in 20 games this season.

The shorter the career, the longer the memory. And the harder it can be, for a young player like Dennis Cholowski, to forget a poor shift or a bad period or a loss like the one the Red Wings suffered Tuesday night to the Ottawa Senators.

A miserable second period saw a 2-1 lead turn into a 4-2 deficit for the home team at Little Caesars Arena, and Cholowski, the Wings’ 21-year-old defenseman, was on the ice for the last two of those goals.

After the game, he was on his coach’s mind, too, as Jeff Blashill made a point of praising Cholowski’s strong first-period effort Tuesday while addressing the way things unraveled after that.

“He had a tough second period, and what do we do with that?” said Blashill, who was clearly perturbed by the way his team performed coming off an encouraging three-game West Coast road trip.

“He’s got to come out next game and play great. That’s the reality of it. Mental toughness is a huge part of whether guys have good NHL careers.

“You’re gonna have nights and days and periods like that.

“You got to come out and it’s got to be water off your back and you’ve got to move on to the next one.”

And before Blashill even got to his postgame media session, he’d delivered that same message to Cholowski personally.

“I went to him right after the game and made sure he understood,” Blashill said.

Don't forget

A day later, the coach and the player both seemed to be on the same page, at least, as the Wings held a brief practice and then headed to Columbus, where they’ll continue a hectic week of hockey with four games in six days.

Cholowski, a 2016 first-round pick whose development on the blue line remains a focal point for the organization in this current rebuild, knows he needs to be more “assertive” on the ice.

That’s the word Blashill keeps using. And the way he’d played off the opening drop against Ottawa was “the way we want him to play and the way he needs to play to be successful,” Blashill said Wednesday, “and I don’t want him to forget about that.”

Dennis Cholowski
Age: 22. Ht: 6-2. Wt: 197.
2019-20 statistics: 36 games, two goals, six assists, eight points
Analysis: You have to wonder what the future holds for this former first-round pick, as number of defensive prospects begin filtering into the organization.

Cholowski, who was a healthy scratch for a couple games three weeks ago, says he’s well aware of that. One thing he has learned early in his professional hockey career is that the reminders come quickly. So does the criticism.

“But you take it as constructive, take it for what it is, and you keep playing,” said Cholowski, who played 22:03 against the Senators, second only to Filip Hronek among Wings defensemen. “I know they want me to be assertive and that’s the way I want to play. I want to be offensive and make plays.

“So especially for a young guy like me — still kind of learning the ropes a little bit and figuring everything out — you just have to put it behind you and stay positive.”

That’s not easy on a team that’s currently dead last in the NHL with 17 points and 23 games and a league-worst minus-32 goal differential. It’s even harder when you consider all the injuries that’ve jumbled defense pairings on an almost-nightly basis for Blashill through the first quarter of the regular season.

Still, for Cholowski, who has just six points and is a minus-11 in 20 games this season, it’s imperative that he finds a way. The Wings may have found a top-pairing young blueliner in Hronek, their 2016 second-round choice, and the early view of 2019 first-rounder Moritz Seider is also promising.

But Cholowski’s offensive upside remains intriguing and the hope remains that he can eventually settle in as a second-pair defender and power-play quarterback in Detroit.

'Confidence is everything'

Cholowski made a good first impression as a rookie last fall after injuries to other veteran defensemen accelerated his move to Detroit. But eventually the mistakes piled up and the self-confidence waned and Cholowski ended up playing 52 NHL games before a mid-February demotion to Grand Rapids.

After a long talk with new general manager Steve Yzerman over the summer, Cholowski earned another shot this season with an impressive training camp. But at the end of the Wings’ eight-game losing streak last month, he found himself benched once again — a healthy scratch for back-to-back games against Edmonton and Florida — as Blashill fired another motivational slapshot his way.

He seems to have responded the right way, and his play on the recent road trip, which began with Cholowski scoring the overtime winner in Anahiem, confirmed as much.

“I think he’s been much more assertive than he was before,” Blashill said. “Sometimes, when you’re in the league and you’re young and you’ve made some mistakes and you’ve had a tough go, you’re just trying to survive. And you can’t survive and thrive at the same time — it’s impossible. So we want him to understand, we want him to thrive. And the only way to do that is be assertive.”

More specifically, Blashill wants to see Cholowski minding the gaps better as a defender, “creating stalls” for opposing forwards in the neutral zone and “learning to really close space and end plays earlier” before getting into trouble in his own zone.

Offensively, though, is where the 6-foot-2, 198-pound Cholowski really can do more.

“Move your feet, put yourself in position,” Blashill said. “He can be an excellent passer, at times. Use it. Don’t just punt. Don’t just throw the puck away. Don’t just shovel it away if you don’t know where it’s going. Sometimes you might have to eat it, but move your feet and make plays, both coming out of our end and in the neutral zone. And then on the offensive blue line, he’s got a real good wrist shot, a real good ability to get it in. Be a weapon there.”

All of those things require something else, though. And while Cholowski knows what it is, he also is realizing how hard it can be to find, at times.

“Confidence is everything,” he said. “When I’m playing with confidence, I want to have the puck and skate with it and make a play. If I don’t have as much confidence, maybe that doesn’t happen. So if you make a mistake or a bad play, you just put it behind you and you have to keep your confidence, or else things are just gonna spiral.”

And if there was a positive sign for the young defenseman in Tuesday’s loss, maybe that was it. After a second period to forget for the Wings, Cholowski appeared to do just that.

“I thought he rebounded and had a decent third,” Blashill said.

Now he just needs to remember to do it again — and again.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo