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Red Wings draft pick Alex Cotton prepared to show big season was no fluke

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit – In retrospect, everything turned out fine for defenseman Alex Cotton, the Red Wings’ fifth-round draft pick last month.

But make no mistake about it. Not getting drafted when he was eligible in June 2019, not hearing his name called through seven rounds, spurred Cotton on to a big 2019-20 season.

“Not getting picked just got me motivated to go this (past) year,” said Cotton during a Zoom call with media. “I’m happy with the way it worked out and where I am now.”

Alex Cotton

To hear his name finally called in the 2020 draft, even though it was virtually and not in an NHL arena, didn’t diminish Cotton’s moment one bit.

“Getting drafted this year was such an unbelievable feeling,” Cotton said. “When I saw my name (getting announced), all my emotions came out flying out of me at one time.”

The term “late bloomer” gets thrown out often in sports, and particularly in hockey.

It can be a player simply growing into his body, or maturing physically, a little later than his peers. It could also be his confidence growing later than others, or possibly getting an opportunity to show what he can do, when he didn’t get that chance before.

With Cotton, it seemed all those things came together for him while playing with Lethbridge in the Western Hockey League.

Cotton went from scoring 11 points (two goals, nine assists) in 54 games with Lethbridge in 2018-19, to accumulating 67 points (20 goals, 47 assists) in 63 games last season.

Those 67 points led all WHL defensemen in scoring, and after the season Cotton was named to the WHL Second All-Star Team.

Talk about a breakthrough season.

“When they gave me that opportunity, I wasn’t going to allow anyone to take it from me,” said Cotton, of getting more ice time and special team roles with Lethbridge last season. “I just went out and played the way I knew I can.”

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Cotton became a dedicated workout enthusiast after not getting drafted, getting stronger physically and working on his skating.

That, along with getting stronger naturally over time, helped Cotton considerably.

“At the end of my 17-year-old year, I went home and worked super hard over the summer,” said Cotton, who is 19. “I skated twice every day and worked out and it gave me confidence that I was in real good shape.

“And I kind of got an opportunity and I took it. That season gave me confidence in what I can do and this season, when the (WHL) season starts Jan. 8, I’m going to try and top it.”

The dramatic improvement Cotton showed on the ice last season was certainly noticed by the Red Wings. Kris Draper, the Wings’ director of amateur scouting, appreciated the on-ice improvement, but also the way Cotton presented himself.

“He had a big year and that’s exciting,” Draper said. “(But) he was a good interview (with the Wings), he has a real good self-assessment of where he is as a hockey player, what he needs to improve on.

“That’s pretty impressive for a 19-year-old and that was something that obviously stuck (with the Wings) as well.”

Cotton is 6-foot-2, 175 pounds, and currently projects as an offensive defenseman who can move the puck and get it to teammates in scoring spots on the ice.

“He has the ability to produce offense,” Draper said. “We felt we were getting a good name there (in the fifth-round).”

Defense, at this moment, remains the question mark on most scouts’ minds, as is Cotton’s overall skating. To the young defenseman’s credit, Cotton understands that, and continues to work on that aspect of his game.

“What I can do well is just my offensive instincts and making plays and making them for my teammates,” Cotton said. “What I work on is my defensive awareness, and backward skating, too, and just everything in the defensive zone.

“When I’m in the defensive zone, I need to focus on playing defense.”

Going into his interview with the Wings, Cotton concentrated on simply being himself. He felt a connection with the organization quickly and is hoping for a professional future with the team, as well as showing this past junior season was no fluke.

"They (the Wings) were the first (NHL) team I ever talked to and it kind of stuck with me throughout the whole year," Cotton said. "There was a lot of interest and it's a perfect spot for me.

"I was just myself (in the interview) and that's the biggest thing. Through all the interviews I had with all the teams, they just want you to be yourself, and that's all I did."

There is probably pressure on Cotton, in some scouts' minds, to show last season wasn't a mirage, but Cotton doesn't feel the pressure.

"I know what I can do when I play well and that's just what I'm going to try to do every night," Cotton said. "That's what I will focus on and get better through the year. Hopefully, then, I can join the Wings organization."

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tkulfan