The Washington Capitals made an unexpected move last week after their dominant season-opening 5-1 victory over the New York Rangers. It would seem to be an odd time to make tweaks to the lineup, but shortly after the win they claimed 23-year-old lefthanded defensemen Dennis Cholowski off waivers from the Seattle Kraken.
Yes, the Capitals left side on defense took a hit over the last little bit - they traded away Jonas Siegenthaler and Brendan Dillon, let Zdeno Chara walk in the free agency, and assigned Michal Kempny to Hershey to get in some additional work. But Trevor van Riemsdyk, usually a right-side defenseman, looked more than capable playing on the left side and the Caps also already have Alexander Alexeyev, who seems like he could handle at least bottom pairing time if needed. So the pickup of Cholowski was a bit surprising - but the team clearly sees him as a project worth working on.
So let’s take a look at the newest Cap.
Cholowski was taken 20th overall in the 2016 draft by the Detroit Red Wings. He was drafted that high due to his offensive capabilities, his puck carrying strength, and his ability to quarterback a powerplay. He eventually made his NHL debut with the Red Wings in the 2018-19 season as a 20-year-old and since then has split his time between the NHL (104 games) and AHL (68 games) over the last three seasons. He didn’t particularly thrive in the NHL, scoring 27 points in those 104 NHL games, and his underlying stats are not pretty.
According to Natural Stat Trick, Cholowski checked in with 47.03 CF% (shot attempts), 45.95 xGF% (expected goals), 46.17 SCF% (scoring chances), and 44.99 HDCF% (high danger scoring chances). And here is how Evolving Wild paints his RAPM chart:
Basically, anyway you look at it, it’s very ugly. So given how much say the Caps’ analytics department usually has in additions like this... why did the Capitals bring him on?
As with all things, context is everything. Just looking at a player’s surface-level stats won’t paint the whole picture; you need to look at their team, their linemates, their health, their team’s health, their time usage, etc. So let’s bring in that context for Cholowski.
First and foremost, let’s look at his team. The Detroit Red Wings were a tire fire while Dennis was on their roster. Over the three seasons that he was there they were the last-ranked team in wins (9 fewer than anyone else) and points (16 less than anyone else). They were also last in every analytic category: CF%, xGF%, SCF%, and HDCF%.
If you look at Cholowski’s relative stats compared to his team, he looks much better than just his basic stats: +0.2CF%, +0.72xGF%, +0.18SC%, -0.01HDCF%. He certainly didn’t blow it out of the water, but he was also at least slightly above average and barely below average in HDCF compared to the rest of his team.
Of course, just because a player is on a bad team, doesn’t mean you can blame their individual results on the team. Both Nick Jensen and Anthony Mantha played in Detroit at some point over those same three years Dennis was there and they put up fantastic numbers. But here comes another context clue that might explain why Dennis suffered over those three years, while Mantha and Jensen thrived: age and development.
Cholowski went straight from the WHL as a 19-year-old into the NHL at 20. He did play 25 games in the AHL that first season, as well, but spent the majority of his time in the NHL. Mantha didn’t play in the NHL full time until he was 22; Jensen wasn’t a full-time NHLer until he was 26. It takes longer for a defensemen to develop and it’s obvious Cholowski could have used another couple of years developing in the AHL before making the NHL jump.
That brings us to the next bit of context, and that would be Cholowski’s partners while he was in Detroit, sorted by most time spent together to least (min 75 minutes, via Natural Stat Trick).
Most of it doesn’t look great, with the exception of the two players highlighted in green, who are probably the only two good defensemen on the list. We’ll talk about Hronek in a second, but the rest are all aged 30+, slow vets who frankly haven’t been that great in recent years. On top of that, of the group, only McIlrath and Biega were right handed - meaning when Cholowski played with Daley, Kronwall, Ericsson, and DeKeyser, someone was on their off-side. So Cholowski put up good numbers with good players (Green and Jensen) and bad numbers with bad players. That essentially tells us he probably can’t carry a pair by himself but has the ability to help support a good skating defensemen.
I want to take a second to talk about Hronek, who technically isn’t bad but was also a young blueliner like Cholowski: they were drafted the same year, broke into the NHL the same year, and were given the most amount of minutes together. As you can see below (and above), they were not good together - but Cholowski actually put up positive relative stats when he was away from Hronek.
Again, not saying Hronek is bad, but maybe putting two young guys together that should have cooked longer, on the worst team in the league, wasn’t a smart decision for those kids’ development.
While we’re taking a look at time spent with defensive partners, something else stands out: Cholowski played in 104 games and 1542 minutes at five on five. Of all those minutes, the most time he spent with any one partner was 285 minutes. That’s just 18.48% of his total ice time with one player. For comparison’s sake, former Cap Jonas Siegenthaler (another young kid) played 97 games with the Capitals at 1192 minutes, with 348 of those minutes with one partner (Radko Gudas) - that’s almost 30% of his time. Even as a group, Cholowski played 48.83% alongside his top three players, while Siegenthaler spent 65.35% of his time with his top three. This seems to show that Cholowski was thrown all over the lineup without a consistent partner, which is probably incredibly important if you’re going to play a 20-year-old at the NHL level.
Given that context, the Caps probably want to see what this kid can do while playing on a good team, with good teammates, and while getting consistent time with those teammates. Maybe they can salvage some of what Detroit squandered (and do so for just the cost of a waiver claim). They have the team, the defensive coaching, and the defensive partners (including one he has already proven to put up good numbers with in Jensen) to give Cholowski the chance to thrive.
None of this is to say that the Capitals somehow just found this gem player on the waiver wire who will become the 40-50 point top four defensemen that he was projected to be at the time of his draft. The chances of that are incredibly low. But he is only 23, which is still young in defensemen years. It isn’t out of the question that he could still become a solid bottom three puck moving defensemen.