St. Cloud, MN – “The NHL will always be there. You only get four years in college. Don’t give that time away. Turn pro when it’s obvious to EVERYONE that you have nothing left to prove at the college level. It’s a high-growth environment that you can’t replicate. And it’s fun as hell!! – Greg Carvel, University of Massachusetts Head Coach
At age 24, former St. Cloud State University defenseman Dennis Cholowski is at a crossroads. At an age when many players are just beginning their pro careers, Cholowski has just finished his fifth pro season and has no contract for the 2022-23 season. In the flurry of free agent signings that began at noon on July 13th, Cholowski became an unrestricted free agent after the Seattle Kraken failed to make him a qualified offer by July 11th.
Cholowski is another example of how the NHL can be a cruel business even for first-round draft choices. The highest drafted player in SCSU hockey history, Cholowski was selected by the Detroit Red Wings as the 20th pick in the first round of the 54th annual NHL Entry Draft in 2016. After being projected as a 4th to 6th round pick in the Central Scouting preliminary rankings, the Langley, British Columbia was 48th in the January 2016 mid-term Central Scouting rankings and by April had rocketed to 23rd in the final rankings. The Detroit Red Wings and General Manager Ken Holland considered him one of the best skating defensemen in the draft and snared him with the 20th pick.
A the time, Director of amateur scouting Tyler Wright noted “He’s a beautiful skater. He is an effortless skater. You can’t have enough smart, good puck-moving defensemen on your hockey club. He’s a very driven kid. He’s a young kid that’s still growing and could be one of the best skating defensemen in this draft. So we’re really intrigued by his size, skating ability, and puck-moving ability. We think that he’s still got a lot of room to grow.”
Already committed to Bob Motzko and St. Cloud State University, the Red Wing’s Holland stated “We can tuck him away in college for 3-4 years.” Wright added “St. Cloud’s a good program. However long it’s going to take him depends on him.”
At 6’1″ and at most 180 pounds, Cholowski had the frame but not the muscle or weight needed to defend in the National Hockey League (he’s currently listed at 6’2″, 196). The weight room at St. Cloud State was the ideal venue to add strength and size and acclimate himself to a higher level of competitiveness in college hockey. Plus, the educated-minded Cholowski family could immerse the player in a pre-engineering curriculum.
Cholowski played in as many games as anyone on the SCSU squad in 2016-17 contributing one goal and eleven assists for twelve points,14 penalty minutes and was -9 in plus/minus. He clearly struggled at times with the size and strength of players in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Nevertheless and surprisingly, the Red Wings and Cholowski felt he was ready for a new challenge and they promptly signed him to a three-year entry-level contract immediately following the season.
This is where the business of professional hockey begins:
Signed by the Red Wings on April 5th, 2017, he subsequently signed an Amateur Tryout Agreement with their affiliate Grand Rapids Griffins and suited up for one American Hockey League game to finish the 2016-17 season. Unable to crack the Red Wings’ pre-season roster in 2017, Cholowski was assigned to the Prince George Cougars, a major junior team in the Western Hockey League ultimately splitting time between the Prince George Cougars and the Portland Winterhawks after being traded. He made an impact in the WHL with 66 points in 69 games.
He made a huge leap to the NHL for the 2018-19 season scoring a goal in his NHL debut and the team’s first game of the season. He logged 52 games with an impressive 7 goals and 9 assists for 16 points but an unimpressive -20 in plus/minus.
Thereafter, finding decreasing time in the NHL (36 games in 2019-20 and 16 games in 2020-21) he was left unprotected for the 2021 expansion draft and was selected by the Seattle Kraken as their third pick. He signed a one-year deal but was subsequently waived by the Kraken six months later. In October 2021 he was claimed by the Washington Capitals, appeared in seven games, and then was waived in February 2022. He was reclaimed by Seattle and was immediately assigned to their AHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers where he finished the season logging 31 games with 3 goals and 15 assists for 18 points.
“I think for Dennis it’s all about playing defense,” said Dan Bylsma, Checkers assistant coach who previously worked with Cholowski in the Detroit organization. “He’s got to get better and stronger at his stick battles, killing plays, and being strong at the net. That’s where he’s got to improve and when he does he’ll be a National Hockey League player.”
All told at the NHL level, Cholowski found success on offense with 10 goals and 20 assists for 30 points in 115 games but suffered miserably defensively at -50 in plus/minus. Likewise, in the American Hockey League, he excelled offensively with 53 points in 100 games but was -11 in plus/minus.
In retrospect, was he fast-tracked too quickly by the Red Wings? Would he have benefitted from an emphasis on defensive play in the rugged National Collegiate Hockey Conference and the weight and strength training of a collegiate program? It’s hard to say. “There were pros and cons to leaving college, but Dennis felt, for his hockey development, it would put him in the best position for when he commenced his pro career,” Red Wings assistant general manager Ryan Martin told NHL.com.
So for now, Cholowski is a free agent without a contract and skating in the Da Beauty League in the Twin Cities on a team with a handful of former SCSU Huskies and other collegiate and professional players. He’s sure to be signed by someone prior to the start of the 2022-23 season.
But, as long-time hockey writer Kevin Allen recently noted about former Red Wing’s first-round picks Evgeny Svechnikov (1/19, 2015) and Dennis Cholowski (1/20, 2016). “Maybe an NHL team will give them a look. But isn’t it time to close the book on their long-term potential?”