BUFFALO, NY -- Before this past season, Dennis Cholowski wasn't among the players projected to go in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft.
But the Detroit Red Wings made a draft-day trade with the Arizona Coyotes, sending Pavel Datsyuk's cap space and the No. 16 pick for Arizona's No. 20, No. 53 (second round) and forward Joe Vitale.
Cholowski was still on the board when the 20th pick came up and the Wings didn't hesitate to take him.
"We had trade-back options at 20 as well," said Tyler Wright, the Wings' director of amateur scouting. "We just really felt that he was such a good fit for us."
Things started to change for Cholowski when the young BCHL defenseman appeared in the World Junior A Challenge tournament for Canada West last December, helping his team win all four games, against Russia, Canada East, the United States and the Czech Republic.
Playing for Chilliwack in the BCHL, Cholowski finished the season with 40 points (12 goals, 28 assists) in 50 games and continued that in the playoffs with 15 points in 20 games.
"I got to go to the world junior challenge in December and I thought after that tournament my confidence went way up," Cholowski said. "Just being a little more assertive and imposing my will on the ice a little bit more. My ranking went up from there and here I am now."
In ISS Hockey's Draft Guide, ISS scout Phil Myre said, "Liked this defenseman during World Junior A Challenge. He has good size, competes and has very good hockey sense. Puck skills are good and he keeps his game simple. Uses his partner well, makes a good first pass and plays safe. Keeps a good gap and will stand up against the rush in the NZ. He defends the DZ well."
Although Cholowski couldn't have predicted he'd end up with the Wings, he was delighted that he did.
"It's an extreme honor, obviously they're one of the great franchises of all time," Cholowski said. "Some of the greatest players ever, guys like Nick Lidstrom, one of my all-time idols. I'm extremely excited to be chosen by the Red Wings."
Cholowski said he tried to incorporate some of Lidstrom's game into his own.
"One of my favorite players of all time," Cholowski said. "I just loved how poised he is on the ice and how calm he is, probably one of the top five defensemen of all time, for sure."
No one expects Cholowski to turn into Lidstrom but the Wings believe he can be a top-four defenseman.
"We think he's just kind of hitting the tip of the iceberg," Wright said. "He's a young kid that's still growing, could be one of the best-skating defensemen in this draft. So we're really intrigued by size, skating ability, puck-moving ability. We think that he's still got a lot of room to grow."
Cholowski said he was always a smaller kid and only in the last couple of years grew to be his current 6-foot-1, 177 pounds.
"When I was younger I was always small and not being able to really throw my body in the corners, that kind of thing," Cholowski said. "Now that I've grown up and I realized I'm not small anymore, now I can use my body a little bit more, use it to my advantage offensively and defensively."
Wright and Wings chief amateur scout Jeff Finley, a former NHL defenseman, had plenty of opportunities to watch Cholowski as they live in British Columbia.
"He was 5-8, 5-9 a couple years ago and he's just really kind of taken off," Wright said. "He's a beautiful skater. He is an effortless skater. You can't have enough smart, good puck-moving defensemen on your hockey club."
Cholowski said in addition to Lidstrom, he admired Scott Niedermayer and said his game is similar.
"More of a two-way defenseman now, having the ability to jump in the rush and generate points that kind of thing, as well as being sound in my own zone, breaking the puck out and making a good first pass," Cholowski said.
Cholowski knows that he still has plenty to do in order to reach the NHL.
"Just getting a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger and engaging in battles in the corners and in front of the net, just being a little bit harder to play against in general," Cholowski said.
Wright met with Cholowski at the combine and came away impressed with the youngster's intelligence and drive.
"He's a very driven kid," Wright said. "It almost sounds boring a little bit but he is committed in what he wants to do in his life. I think that's impressive for a kid at this age to have those beliefs. He's got a long summer in the weight room, he needs to get physically stronger, he understands that. There's no doubt in my mind he's going to put the time and effort in."
Cholowski is committed to play at St. Cloud State.
"St. Cloud's a good program," Wright said. "However long it's going to take him depends on him."
Although it might take Cholowski a few years to be NHL-ready, the Wings are thrilled to have him in their system.
"You look at the price to get a top-four defenseman in the NHL these days, whether it's a free agent or a trade, you pretty much have to remove a kidney," Wright said. "It's a big price.
"We have to draft them first, we have to develop them and once you get them, you keep them for a long period of time."