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Cougars have eyes on Red Wings prospect

The Prince George Cougars took a flyer on Dennis Cholowski when they picked him four years ago in the 10th-round of the Western Hockey League bantam draft. As it turned out, the high-end defenceman decided to join the Chilliwack Chiefs of the B.C.
St. Cloud Huskies defenceman Dennis Cholowski, who just signed a three-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings, could be wearing a Prince George Cougars uniform next season.

The Prince George Cougars took a flyer on Dennis Cholowski when they picked him four years ago in the 10th-round of the Western Hockey League bantam draft.

As it turned out, the high-end defenceman decided to join the Chilliwack Chiefs of the B.C. Hockey League to follow the NCAA college route, leaving the Cougars and their WHL ambitions in the lurch.

But there was always a chance that maybe Cholowski would forego his amateur status and a scholarship at St. Cloud University to return to Canada to play in the WHL. The 19-year-old made that official last week when he signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Detroit Red Wings, the team that chose him in the first round, 20th overall in the 2016 NHL draft.

The 1998-born Cholowski could make the Wings roster next season, or possibly play in the American Hockey League for the Grand Rapids Griffins. But the more likely scenario is the six-foot-one, 176-pound Langley native will be playing for the Cougars.

If that's true, the Cougars might have found their replacement for Brendan Guhle.

Guhle, the team's most valuable player, joined the Cougars in November in a trade from Prince Albert and proved himself as a gamebreaker on defence. In 32 games, Guhle produced 13 goals and 16 assists for 29 points to help the Cougars clinch the B.C. Division title. He also picked up six assists in six playoff games, giving every indication the 1997-born Buffalo Sabres' second-rounder is ready for pro hockey.

Cholowski is cut from similar cloth. In 36 games in his rookie season in the NCAA at St. Cloud, he had a goal and 11 assists for the Huskies with 14 penalty minutes.

"He's a very smooth-skating defenceman who gets up the ice really well and distributes the puck and carries the offence from the back end, very much like a Brendan Guhle," said Cougars general manager Todd Harkins, who has been tracking Cholowski's progress since his peewee days in the Lower Mainland and saw him play a couple college games this past season.

"The NHL draft has changed his course and he could end up playing for us one day. It all depends on Dennis's opportunities with Detroit and he has the option to go to the American Hockey League as well. Detroit obviously liked him enough to draft him in the first round and they know there's an opportunity for him to come back here if they feel he's not ready for the NHL or AHL."

At the time the Wings drafted Cholowski last June, the Red Line Report, compiled by a network of amateur scouts, had glowing recommendations:

"Fluid rearguard has good offensive skills and is a fine four-way skater with agility and the elusiveness to evade forecheckers," said the report. "Makes excellent breakouts, crisp and on the tape. Scans the whole ice looking to make plays - takes his time with the puck and doesn't rush his passes or panic.

"Also has patience to skate the puck out of his zone rather than force ill-advised passes. Likes to pinch and join the attack, often venturing in deep. Shows a hard, accurate shot from the point. Plays both special teams and in all key situations, and generally controls the play with poise and confidence. Heads up and defensively aware around his own end, rarely making a bad decision.

"Maintains tight gaps and hardly gives puckhandlers any space to make plays. Has grown five inches in the past two years and has developed into a very steady, reliable, and underrated two-way defenceman."

Cholowski attended the Cougars' training camp in 2013 and played his 15-year-old season for Yale Academy. He did not go through his growth until after he turned 16 and decided to play junior A in the BCHL for Chilliwack, where he drew the attention of

St. Cloud recruiters. In two seasons with the Chiefs from 2014-16 collected 16 goals and 52 points in 105 games and also had four goals and 22 points in 32 playoff games.

Cholowski also skated with players a year older while playing spring hockey in Langley and that put him into games against Harkins's son, Jansen, one of seven Cougars from this year's team now playing pro in the AHL.

"I knew in bantam, even though he was quite small, he was quite skilled and smart and you always want to take those guys who you think will grow, that can play the game at the highest level with their mind and their feet and that's why we took him (in the draft), said Todd Harkins.

"I can't say he's coming here, I can only say that there's an option. If he ends up here, obviously it's great for Prince George, but we just want to develop him and make him into an NHL hockey player. That's what we're in this business for and the ultimate goal is to win a championship and Memorial Cup if we can develop enough of them."

Harkins says the new ownership group which took over team three years ago has changed the culture and reputation of the team and how the Cougars are perceived by players, and NHL teams have caught wind of that. Where it was once a place they did not want to go and bantam prospects made that known to the team well in advance of the draft so the Cougars would not pick them, Prince George is now considered a choice WHL destination because the franchise is being run more professionally, is winning often on the ice and is gaining back fan support. But three years ago the Cougars' were winger Colby McAuley's last resort when he was trying to break into the WHL as an 18-year-old. All he did was blossom into one of the Cougars' most complete players and he's now playing in the AHL with the San Jose Barracuda.

"No one knew what he was, he was a walk-on at training camp and under our system, under our new ownership and management he's developed into a pro hockey player and that speaks volumes and that's easy to sell to NHL teams and players to potentially play for us one day," said Harkins.

"We're scouring Western Canada and the United States to find the next players to play for us and become pro hockey players. From the day we draft them or list them they're always a Prince George Cougar some way and that's the beauty of this organization because it takes a lot of time and money to keep those relationships open for these kids to one day play for us."

Harkins is heading to Regina to scout bantam prospects in the SaskFirst tournament in Regina, which starts today. Next Thursday he'll be in Salmon Arm for the four-day BC Hockey bantam tournament, then to Canmore for the Alberta Cup, April 26-30. That leads to the WHL bantam draft in Calgary in Thursday, May 4. The Cougars, who can return just three of their 13 1997-born players for next season, have enough spots on their 50-player protected list to add as many as 15 players through this year's draft.