Dennis Cholowski overcomes demotion as Red Wings take big-picture approach

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Grand Rapids – It’s never easy when these things happen, and when the call came that Dennis Cholowski kind of suspected would come, he was appropriately glum.

The rookie defenseman had made the Red Wings roster right out of training camp and despite a run of injuries at the position, Cholowski was likely to make the roster anyway. He was that good in the exhibition season.

Dennis Cholowski

But by mid-February Cholowski’s play had slipped. His confidence was wavering and the Red Wings believed it was best for him to go to the minor leagues.

“It’s obviously disappointing,” Cholowski said as the Grand Rapids Griffins prepared for the AHL playoffs. “Nobody wants to get sent down.”

Cholowski’s defensive game needed to improve. There was too much indecision and opposing players were exposing Cholowski’s inexperience.

“They sent me here for a reason – my defensive zone (coverage), being a little more assertive, being a little harder to play against,” said Cholowski, the Wings’ 2016 first-round draft pick.

Cholowski, 21, wound up playing 25 regular-season games with the Griffins, posting 12 points (all assists) and an even rating.

“Since I’ve been down here, that’s (defensive work) what I’ve been working on and it’s been good,” Cholowski said. “Get that side of the game honed in, and bring that to next season.”

In 52 games with the Wings, Cholowski had 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) but had a distressing minus-20 rating, a testament to below-par defensive work.

When the Wings were beset with injuries in March – and the defense was decimated, as it was to begin the season – there was a belief Cholowski would be recalled.

But Cholowski stayed in Grand Rapids, for reasons coach Jeff Blashill said at the time were entirely for Cholowski’s development.

“(With) every player you take an individual approach,” Blashill said. “It’s very important for us that every decision we make with Dennis is for his long-term – the best long-term approach for his development.

“We sent him down there for a reason – to get better defensively. He’s made strides that way. Previously to that, he still hadn’t gotten to those strides that we wanted him to take. So I’m not going to have him back up here (in NHL) until he gets to that point where he’s making those strides on a consistent basis because otherwise, the move won’t bear the fruits that you want it to bear – which for him is to be a more complete player.”

Dennis Cholowski: “They sent me (to the minors) for a reason – my defensive zone (coverage), being a little more assertive, being a little harder to play against.”

Cholowski’s struggles became more noticeable in road losses in Winnipeg (Jan. 11) and Calgary (Jan. 18). He was minus-3 in both games and lacked confidence.

The Wings were on a western Canada road trip, beginning in Calgary, and despite playing in Cholowski’s hometown of Vancouver, he was a healthy scratch against the Canucks (and the next game in Edmonton).

Cholowski played the next five games coming out of the Wings’ bye week. But with defenseman Filip Hronek developing rapidly in Grand Rapids, the Wings recalled Hronek and sent Cholowski to the Griffins.

“I wasn’t expecting it, it was a bit of a surprise,” said Cholowski of the demotion. “I could tell something was going on. I had been scratched a few games and out of the lineup. Maybe I was thinking something was up.

“But, yeah, it was a bit of a surprise to get the call to come into the office.”

When Cholowski arrived in Grand Rapids, there was an adjustment to get acclimated with new teammates, a new league.

And, to get over the disappointment of not being in the NHL.

“Mentally you have to be strong,” Cholowski said. “It stinks for any young player to come down here when you’ve been up (in the NHL) for most of the season. But you have a job to do and you have to do what your employer says.

“So I’ve been working on my game down here and hopefully I can bring what I’ve learned back there next season.”

There’s still a long offseason to get done with first, and personnel is sure to change by the time training camp begins in September.

Cholowski could still have a battle on his hands in terms of securing a Wings’ roster spot.

Trevor Daley, Danny DeKeyser, Jonathan Ericsson, Mike Green and Madison Bowey are all under contract. Niklas Kronwall is debating whether to play another year – but there’s a good chance he will – while Luke Witkowski is an unrestricted free agent.

Hronek was impressive with the Wings late in the season, and the Wings want to inject some youth in the defensive unit.

“Ultimately, Dennis is going to be a real good player,” Blashill said. “He’s got really good talent but in the end we need him to be a real good two-way player.

“So it’s just part of the maturation process. For him, it’s a totally different situation. We want to make sure we’re doing everything that’s best for his long-term development.”

For Cholowski, playing in the AHL playoffs could be a major step in his development.

The Griffins and Chicago Wolves enter Game 3 in Grand Rapids Tuesday tied 1-1 in the best-of-five series. Cholowski has played both games with no points and an even plus-minus rating, with two shots on net.

The games are tighter, the level of play higher, and the pressure has increased dramatically from the regular season.

The Griffins entered the playoffs having lost their last nine games during the regular season. But Cholowski feels the Griffins are ready for a fresh start.

“You have to remember it a little bit and use it as a motivation,” said Cholowski of the Griffins’ late slide. “But, really, you have to look at it as a new season. You can’t dwell on the losses too much. You have to move on and we have to put it behind us.”

Getting a chance to participate in a pro playoff series was something Cholowski has looked forward to all season.

“I haven’t really gotten a taste of it (pro playoffs),” said Cholowski, who got into one playoff game last spring. “I’ve been here a little bit (a depth defenseman for the Griffins last spring) but have never really gotten a playing taste of pro playoff hockey.”

Twitter @tkulfan