Dennis Cholowski got into top shape over the summer and is reaping the benefits as a rookie defenseman with the Detroit Red Wings.
Cholowski said scheduled workouts under the close watch of Red Wings trainers and coaches during the past two summers after his one season at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota in 2016-17 may turn out to be the best decision he's ever made.
The training not only provided a peek into the offseason regimen of an NHL player but gave him an idea of the work and commitment needed to succeed at the top level.
"They wanted me to come out to Detroit because they wanted to keep an eye on me all summer," the 20-year-old said. "I was training at a gym they requested and was also skating at the rink. I was working out two hours a day, every morning, building strength and speed.
"I got in the best shape of my life the past two summers and it really helped me. This past summer was the toughest for sure."
Cholowski (6-foot, 195 pounds) has eight points (two goals, six assists), tied for third among NHL rookies with Ottawa Senators defenseman Maxime Lajoie and Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Henri Jokiharju, and he's fourth in average ice time at 20:50 in 12 games. He's tied for third on the Red Wings with Niklas Kronwall in blocked shots (16) and is sixth in shots on goal (22).
"He's exceeded our expectations in almost every way," Red Wings assistant general manager Ryan Martin said. "His year at St. Cloud State was average, and I'm sure he'd be the first to admit that."
Cholowski had 12 points (one goal, 11 assists) and a minus-9 rating in 36 NCAA games. At Prince George of the Western Hockey League the following season, he had 39 points (13 goals, 26 assists) and a plus-9 rating in 37 games before being traded to Portland on Jan. 10.
"I opted for the WHL because I wanted to be put in all situations like the power play, penalty kill," Cholowski said. "I played a lot of minutes and really that was the main thought process when I talked to Detroit about making the move (to Prince George)."
Cholowski ranks third among Red Wings defensemen in average ice time on the power play (2:29) and leads Detroit with six power-play points (one goal, five assists).
In Portland, Cholowski had 27 points (one goal, 26 assists) and a plus-20 rating in 32 games, and seven points (five goals, two assists) in 12 WHL playoff games.
"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," Martin said. "For the better part of two summers he also committed his own time to live in Detroit, train here and put on close to 20 pounds of muscle, and I think that helped tremendously.
"Our expectation coming into this training camp was that he certainly would be competing for a job."
Cholowski was 170 pounds when the Red Wings selected him in the first round (No. 20) of the 2016 NHL Draft. He signed an entry-level contract April 5, 2017.
"I think he has tremendous upside," Martin said. "His assets are really valuable at the NHL level, like skating, hockey sense and ability to transport the puck. He seems to have a good feel to when to skate and when to just move it up the ice. Those are tough things to teach. I just think he needs to become more assertive in his own end and needs to continue to build his body strength. That confidence to play in his own end will continue to grow and develop."
Cholowski is a product of the British Columbia Hockey League, where he spent two seasons with Chilliwack (2014-16). He was one of three BCHL players chosen in the first round of the 2016 draft (Tyson Jost, Colorado Avalanche, No. 10; Dante Fabbro, Nashville Predators, No. 17).
"The thing about Dennis is he thinks the game so well and he's such a smart player with the puck on his stick," said John Williams of NHL Central Scouting. "I think the knock on him prior to the draft was that he wasn't exactly the most physical player. But he used his skating and his smarts to get pucks through, and when he had the puck on his stick he made things happen."
Cholowski said his ability as a skater is his greatest attribute.
"Skating is a part of my game I worked on a lot when I was younger because I always figured that if I could skate well I'd be able to transition to the NHL a little bit easier," he said.