Published July 1, 2018
The Red Wings have been an NHL franchise for over 90 years and it says something that only one of the retired numbers in the rafters of Little Caesars Arena belongs to a defenseman.
And not just any defenseman—Nicklas Lidstrom was arguably the best to ever play the position. Certainly among the most fundamentally sound. What else can you say about a guy who played 20 seasons on the blue line in the NHL without ever throwing a body check? Lidstrom became a Hall of Famer by knowing how to be in the right place at the right time—aided greatly by a stick that ruined countless passes and evaporated a zillion scoring chances.
Lidstrom was 21 years of age when he hit the ice for the first time wearing the Winged Wheel. When he finally peeled off the sweater in 2012 at age 42, he took with him the heart of the Red Wings’ defense, which hasn’t come close to being replaced since.
For all the kudos that GM Kenny Holland and his lieutenants are receiving—and rightly so by all accounts—for what appears to be a fine amateur draft last month, it’s a player who was selected in the first round two summers ago who stands to gain the most from the selections made in 2018.
No excuses now for Cholowski
Dennis Cholowski is 20 years old, and only in professional sports can that be considered long in the tooth, when it comes to that P-word, potential.
Cholowski, a defenseman who was the Red Wings’ first round selection (20th overall) in the 2016 amateur draft, just finished participating in his third developmental camp—and that’s what makes a 20-year-old kid a grizzled veteran of sorts.
It’s probably too harsh—and too early—to say that Cholowski, a 6’2″, 200-pound sculpture, has to you-know-what or get off the pot, but if anyone has a moment that needs to be seized, it’s he.
Anyone who knows even a thimble full about hockey knows that the Red Wings suffer on defense from a deadly combination of lack of skill and depth. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Lidstrom, at age 48, could probably dust off his skates and make the team out of training camp this September.
The June 2018 draft saw a couple of high-flying forwards fall to the Red Wings in the first round: Filip Zadina (6th overall) and Joe Veleno (30th overall). Despite being in desperate need of help on the blue line, Holland et al couldn’t resist snatching up Zadina and Veleno—neither of whom they expected to be available when their two first round turns came.
The Red Wings did draft a defenseman with their second, second-round pick: Jared McIsaac (36th overall). But no matter. This is Cholowski’s moment.
There simply is no better time for someone of Cholowski’s ilk—whether you’re talking size, age, puck-moving skill or hockey IQ—to do anything but make it impossible for Red Wings brass to not include him on the opening night roster in October.
There’s a gaping hole on the D-corps in Detroit, and if Cholowski doesn’t fill it, shame on him.
Yes, that’s a lot to say about someone who’s not legally allowed to have a beer after a game, but that’s what pro sports has turned into. A 20-year-old who was drafted two years ago is on the clock.
Red Wings D: old, lacking skill
The Red Wings, on the first official day of free agency today (July 1), signed 33-year-old D Mike Green to a two-year deal to remain in Detroit. That’s fine, and it didn’t break the bank, and Green is the best offensive threat the Red Wings have on the blue line, but he’s not the future. And, Green is coming off neck surgery.
Beyond Green, the Red Wings on the D have veteran Niklas Kronwall, who’s being held together with baling wire, and a slew of mediocre, uninspiring alternatives who are mistake prone and couldn’t make an electrifying breakout pass even if you put them on the ice without any defenders.
The situation is tailor made for Cholowski.
“(Cholowski’s) strengths are his skating and his puck-moving ability,” says director of player development Shawn Horcoff, who played 15 seasons in the NHL. “Like any other young D, he is going to have to defend well enough for the coach to have confidence in putting him out there. That’s the hardest part at the NHL level — unless you are some superstar offensive player, which there are not many of, you have to be able to defend the game’s best players. In our division there’s lots of them, so that’s going to be his biggest test.”
Cholowski got off to a rough start after being drafted by the Red Wings. His early play for the St. Cloud State Huskies (college) in 2016-17 left much to be desired. But he turned it around last season, as a stalwart on D for two teams (Prince George and Portland) in the major junior’s Western Hockey League, registering 14 goals and 52 assists in 69 games, after tallying just one goal and 11 assists for the Huskies in 2016-17.
“He wants to make the team,” Horcoff says. “He wants to knock a guy out of the box. His weight is up, his strength is up. It’s still early in the summer and there is lots of work to be done, but he looks good as of now.”
‘Next in line’
After the Red Wings went heavy on offense in last month’s draft, no one had to tell Cholowski that there’s no better time than now to grab an NHL job for keeps.
“When I saw [the way the draft unfolded], I was: Get on my horse and get going. Because, you know, I think I’m next in line,” Cholowski told the Detroit News.
The funny thing is, Cholowski, though he didn’t know it, has been next in line since he was 14 years old, when Lidstrom retired. Because though the Red Wings have tried mightily, both in the draft and in free agency, they have failed in remaking a blue line corps that dissipated a couple seasons after winning the 2008 Stanley Cup.
That Kronwall, 37, is even going to be on the Red Wings’ roster this fall is an indictment. That Green, at 33, is the team’s best offensive defenseman is another.
The Red Wings haven’t had a young D-man as eagerly anticipated to make his NHL debut as Cholowski, since…well, maybe when Lidstrom debuted in 1991. After Nick, the Red Wings relied heavily on deadline trades and free agent signings to cobble together a top flight blue line corps. They certainly didn’t do it via the draft.
I’m not saying that we will someday see Dennis Cholowski’s number hoisted to the rafters, but the kid has an opportunity like few before him to become entrenched on the Red Wings’ D at such a young age.
This is it, young man. Meet the bull’s horns.