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Wings prospect Dennis Cholowski ready to take next step

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Grand Rapids — If it’s Wednesday this must be Grand Rapids — and it was, so Dennis Cholowski put on his Grand Rapids Griffins’ jersey and it was off to start his professional career.

It’s been a whirlwind few days. Cholowski’s junior career ended last weekend when Portland was eliminated in the Western Hockey League playoffs, which simultaneously ignited his pro career,.

The Red Wings assigned Cholowski to their minor league affiliate in Grand Rapids, where he’ll practice twice before the Griffins travel to Manitoba and the start of the AHL playoffs Saturday.

Whether Cholowski will play, or how much he’ll play, is up in the air, especially with a deep Griffins’ defense corps currently available.

But Cholowski is intent on cracking the lineup.

“Just practice hard and help the team whatever way I can,” said Cholowski after Wednesday’s practice. “Whether it be practicing or playing, I’m here to help and try to get better every day.

“(I put) pressure on myself, I want to play. I’m going to come here every day and try to get in the lineup.”

Cholowski, a former 2016 Red Wings’ 1st-round pick, took a huge step forward in his development this season.

Spliting the season between Prince George and Portland in the WHL, Cholowski had 66 points (14 goals, 52 assists) then added seven points (five goals, two assists) in 12 playoff games.

From the start of last summer, the Red Wings wanted Cholowski to concentrate on getting stronger, becoming more assertive on the ice, and continue to progress in the defensive end.

Judging by the feedback and statistics, Cholowski took the recommendations to heart.

“He’s maturing, you can tell,” said Griffins coach Todd Nelson, noting the strong 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame. “One thing that’s constant is he floats on the ice and has a nice skating stride. He’s a very good skater.

“His skill set hasn’t changed. He still looks good. But he looks more mature and gotten bigger.”

Cholowski spent most of last summer in Detroit working with Shawn Horcoff, director of player development, and felt the time was productive on many levels.

“I worked out real hard in the gym, got bigger and stronger, and working out every day and practicing with Shawn and those guys, working in the gym every day, that was real beneficial into this season,” Cholowski said. “Being a lot more aggressive and lot more assertive, I was having the puck on my stick all the time and wanting the puck on my stick and making plays with it.

“Just being more aggressive in my own zone and being able to take the puck and break out myself.”

Cholowski was able to get into one regular season game with the Griffins last season after he left college (St. Cloud State) but didn’t dress for any playoff games.

It could be a struggle this spring, as well, with the Griffins deep on defense, and prospects such as Cholowski, Libor Sulak and to a lesser extent Vili Saarijarvi, who split the season between Grand Rapids and Toledo (ECHL), all battling to enter the lineup.

As much as it would help a young player like Cholowski to get some playoff games, the Griffins are going after a second consecutive Calder Cup and have a lineup that has jelled and played extremely well the last two months.

The Griffins are there to win, and Nelson will put together lineups that will do so.

“I don’t know yet,” said Nelson, as to when, or if, Cholowski will play. “We have a pretty deep defensive corps. But if he’s good enough to knock someone out of the box, he’ll play.

“The positive thing is we have good depth on defense right now. So if some guys get banged up over the course of a series, we can go to and use Dennis, or Sulak, Saarijarvi. But as of right now, our defensive corps is pretty solid and it’s been good for the last couple months.

“I haven’t seen Dennis since training camp, essentially. I’ll see where he’s at. We’ve had one practice out there today. As we go along, if I like what I see and he can help our team and he can knock someone out of the box, he’ll play.”

Cholowski felt the time he was in Grand Rapids last year, soaking in the atmosphere during the playoff run, will help him.

Cholowski was a black ace for much of the playoffs before heading back home in western Canada.

“Last year was great being around the team,” Cholowski said. “It’s definitely going to help. It helped me a lot being around the team and the pro lifestyle and getting to train and work hard and practice. It was definitely good for me.

“Obviously every player wants to play and last year I wanted to play, and this year I want to play. But I’m going to do what they tell me and keep working hard.

“Just take it one day at a time and see what happens.”