Detroit – Nothing about it was particularly pleasant for defenseman Dennis Cholowski.
He was recapping the conversation in February with Coach Jeff Blashill when Cholowski was informed he was being sent to Grand Rapids.
After an impressive start to his rookie season, Cholowski’s play had slipped noticeably. And Filip Hronek, another young defenseman, was trending the other way and deserved a bigger role.
So, just like that, Cholowski, 21, was going the other direction – from the NHL to the AHL, from chartered flights to riding buses.
But more than that, it was about Cholowski, the Red Wings’ 2016 first-round draft pick, finding the confidence he showed in October and November.
“It’s hard, it’s nothing any player wants to hear,” said Cholowski Monday at Little Caesars Arena while serving as a guest instructor at the youth camps the Red Wings are hosting this week.
“You have to take it the right way and stay mentally strong and trust it’s part of the process,” said Cholowski of being sent to Grand Rapids.
The true test of whether the demotion worked, whether it advanced Cholowski’s game, will be determined in September’s training camp and how Cholowski looks against other NHL players.
Earning a job on the Wings’ roster will not be easy, given the veteran depth at the position.
Danny DeKeyser returns. Trevor Daley, Jonathan Ericsson and Mike Green all are on the final year of their contracts. Patrick Nemeth was signed July 1 as an unrestricted free agent. Oliwer Kaski, an undrafted free agent from Finland, was signed this offseason, and Madison Bowey (acquired in the Nick Jensen trade) and Hronek both are back.
It’s a crowded field for jobs. But Cholowski is confident he can crack the lineup if he can play the defensive game the coaching staff expects out of him.
“Just be more responsible,” said Cholowski of what needs to be done defensively. “Have the coaches trust me on the ice and to be able to put me on the ice and know I’m not going to be scored on, and that I can box guys out and I can kill play in the defensive one.
“If I can come in and do that, and let my offensive side take over, I’ll be OK.”
Cholowski understands where he needs to improve.
“Reading plays, sensing danger, when to pull out and when to jump in (the play),” Cholowski said. “It’s kind of a balance. In order to play at the highest level, you have to have that.”
Cholowski played in 52 games with the Wings, with 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) and an eyebrow-raising minus-20 rating, a signal of poor defensive play.
With Grand Rapids, Cholowski played 25 games with 12 points (all assists) and an even plus-minus rating.
It was his defensive play that led to Cholowski’s demotion. He was getting lost in coverage too often, the confidence was slipping, and opponents were outmuscling him around the net.
“In order to play you have to be good defensively,” said Cholowski, of the message sent to him upon his demotion. “That generates the offense. Just working the defensive zone and taking the things I’ve learned (last season) to camp this year.”
When Cholowski was sent to Grand Rapids, Blashill said at the time it was for the young player’s long-term 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.
“Ultimately, Dennis is going to be a real good player. 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.”
Cholowski met with new general manager Steve Yzerman this summer.
Yzerman has mentioned several times this summer that jobs on the Wings’ roster will be earned, not given away.
“I met with him and had a good talk,” Cholowski said. “He’s basically on the same page. He said you have to get better in the defensive zone and get that plus-minus to a better point.”
When Cholowski made the Red Wings out of training camp last season – a rash of injuries among defensemen contributed, but Cholowski also starred during the exhibition season – he played freely and with confidence.
Chowlowski says he has to get back to that type of play again in September.
“I wasn’t thinking about anything, just being me and playing, and I wasn’t worried about anything,” Cholowski said. “If I can get back to that mindset and get back there and focus on being harder to play against in the defensive zone and battle in front of the net and box guys out – it’ll be good.”