GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — With three assists in five games for the Grand Rapids Griffins, there’s no doubt Dennis Cholowski has flourished offensively in the AHL.
However, a lack of offense wasn’t the reason the Detroit Red Wings sent the 20th overall pick from the 2016 draft down to Grand Rapids. It’s the other side of his game that Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill and Griffins coach Ben Simon agree needs to be improved.
“He’s done some good things offensively, and he’s showing good composure with the puck,” Simon told Wings Nation after the Griffins beat the Texas Stars 4-3 in a shootout Friday. “But he’s gotta be better defensively, and that’s one of the reasons why he’s down here. That’s going to be one of our focus points moving forward with him is he’s got to learn to end plays quicker in the D-zone. It’s gotta be consistent on a daily basis with him.”
What does Simon mean when he says “play quicker in the D-zone?”
“When a team has the puck down low, it’s leading with your stick, directing where you want that player to go and stepping into him and not allowing that player to move. I think too much time, he gives them too much latitude, the offensive players, to gain position on them and cut back and generate a little bit of confidence coming out of corners. If he wants to play in the NHL, he’s gotta play mean, he’s gotta play hard, he’s gotta play heavy every shift.”
— Grand Rapids Griffins (@griffinshockey) February 23, 2019
From my vantage point high above Van Andel Arena, I didn’t see any big defensive gaffes from Cholowski on Friday. That’s probably also why I’m not coaching an AHL team. Cholowski was on the ice for the Stars first goal, but really, I would put more of the blame on defensive partner Joe Hicketts, who did not have the goal-scorer covered in the slot.
But while he didn’t have any Jonathan Ericsson-like mistakes, his coach feels the shutdown aspect of his game needs to improve.
As Cholowski fielded questions from reporters after Friday’s game, that maturity and confidence are still there. The 21-year-old said he knows he must be better in his defensive zone, but he doesn’t appear shaken by the demotion — pretty remarkable for a young player who recently was a healthy scratch on his bobblehead night with the Red Wings and sent to Grand Rapids the day before his 21st birthday, all in the same week. Rather, he’s using this opportunity to better himself, which is all the Red Wings front office wants.
“I feel good,” Cholowski said. “We got a good team (in Grand Rapids), that’s for sure — lots of skill, lots of young talent and a lot of veterans to complement that. So far so good.”
The Langley, British Columbia, native was paired with another B.C. native in Hicketts during Friday’s game. Simon said his decision-making process in pairing the two B.C. natives together included playing together in previous rookie camps.
“It’s hit or miss sometimes,” Simon said. “… Joe-Joe and (Cholowski), two very mobile defense. We kinda throw stuff at a wall and see if it sticks, and we’ll make changes as the game goes on if it’s not working.”
With both defensemen being left-handed, it forced Hicketts to play on his offside. However, the Kamloops, British Columbia, native said that doesn’t bother him.
“When you’re playing with a guy that is as highly touted as (Cholowski), he’s got a lot of skill,” Hicketts said. “It’s a lot of fun in the O-zone when we can move it around. D-zone, I thought we were good. We aren’t the most physical, but we’re finding ways to ending plays quickly and move the puck up to the forwards.”
He added: “And it’s nice having a B.C. boy; we’re lacking those around here. It’s exciting to have him; he’s a great hockey player.”
Cholowski had equal praise for Hicketts.
“He’s a warrior every night,” Cholowski said. “Makes smart plays with the puck, will do anything to win the game. It’s great to have a partner like him, and I’ve really been enjoying it.”
So, no, Cholowski isn’t dominating the AHL like I’m sure many Red Wings fans were hoping. But that doesn’t mean his defensive development is being stunted, according to Simon.
“He’s a young kid, he’s a rookie,” Simon said. “Those are things that are not going to happen overnight. No one is doubting his character, his talent. There’s a reason why kids are down here. They’ve got deficiencies in their game they need to work on, and that’s just one of them that he needs to work on.”