Dennis Cholowski didn’t know Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello, but Lamoriello knew Cholowski. That, Cholowski joked Friday, was what helped lead him to the Islanders.
“I don’t know how or when,” the defenseman said, “but I guess when I was younger, he knew me.”
A first-round pick of the Red Wings six years ago, Cholowski sat in a cramped stall inside a small locker room cordoned off by a curtain in Northwell Health Ice Center in East Meadow. The Islanders — the big Islanders, that is — don’t use that room. It’s for the players at rookie camp, only a handful of whom have a chance of making the opening-night roster. Cholowski, the only free agent Lamoriello signed this offseason, is among the group with a chance.
This is the third franchise in a year for the 24-year-old, who was taken in the expansion draft by the Kraken, picked up off waivers by the Capitals, then waived again and sent back to Seattle. Through all of that, Cholowski played more games for the AHL Charlotte Checkers, an affiliate shared by the Kraken and Panthers, than he did in the NHL.
After all that shuttling between the coasts, Cholowski spent the summer in Minnesota, where his fiancée’s family is located. Now, airline miles in tow, Cholowski is on Long Island.
He’s hoping this arrangement, a two-year deal with $762,000 average annual value at the NHL level, will be more permanent. But the precarious nature of that hope is betrayed by a look at his contract, a two-way deal that lets the Islanders pay him a comparatively paltry $200,000 to play for AHL Bridgeport this season they should so choose.
There is a spot to win in the NHL starting lineup, though, on the left side of the blue line, likely opposite Scott Mayfield on the third pair. Between Cholowski, Robin Salo, Sebastian Aho and even Grant Hutton, someone will win that spot. Another player will likely end up on the NHL roster as a healthy scratch and two will start the season in the AHL.
“That’s the goal,” Cholowski said. “Obviously I want to make it and play in the NHL. I’m gonna do my best to do that every day.”
At this point in camp, with the team mostly working on power skating and skills, there is little differentiation among the group. Only three of the four are on the ice with the rookies, as Aho’s attendance won’t be required until next week, when the NHL roster opens camp. It is too early for spirits to be anything but high. Cholowski, who has 30 points in 115 career NHL games, spoke Friday of a renewed confidence despite a nomadic year.
“I felt like last season, I really kinda rounded my game out into a full defensive, offensive game,” he said. “Despite me moving around a lot, I gained a lot of confidence. I feel good about my game.”
Cholowski has always been a capable offensive contributor from the blue line, and those attributes would be welcome on an Islanders team that struggled to transport the puck from one zone to the next last season. It’s the mistakes on defense that have hurt Cholowski in the past. He was a combined minus-46 over his first two NHL seasons with the Red Wings.
Beneath that, though, is a player good enough to have been drafted in the first round not too long ago.
“I think he has so much talent, so much promise,” Hutton, who played against Cholowski in the AHL playoffs last season, told The Post. “I know he’s played a lot of games in the NHL already. He has a good amount of experience.”
He also has a shot here. And he knows it.
“I was happy when [the Islanders] reached out eventually,” Cholowski said. “Excited about the opportunity.”