DETROIT — Michael Rasmussen easily crossed the 10-game rookie threshold last month because he never thought about returning to the Western Hockey League.
Call it confidence or the Detroit Red Wings realizing they may have something special in the Vancouver native and Surrey-raised product, who has nothing left to gain in the junior ranks. The 19-year-old Rasmussen could have been re-assigned to the Tri-City Americans before his 10th game and avoid burning a year of his entry-level contract.
However, the early returns on the 6-foot-6 winger, who can also play centre, have been so encouraging that coach Jeff Blashill is playing him more and in more important roles. As a second-line winger, Rasmussen had two goals and an assist in his previous three games before facing the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday. He also logged a season-high 17:31 on Saturday against the Edmonton Oilers, and there’s more to four points (2-2) in his first dozen games.
Rasmussen’s emerging game has also given the Wings a west-coast feel because Langley native Dennis Cholowski, 20, is leading the club’s back end with eight points (2-6) in his first dozen outings.
As for Rasmussen, the challenge is to use his imposing size. The ninth-overall selection in the 2017 NHL Draft has been protecting pucks better and making plays to earn him power-play time with the injury-riddled Red Wings, who are going through a tough transition. And if Rasmussen’s progress continues, it will be difficult for the club to lend him to Team Canada for the world junior championship next month.
“He had to learn to create space,” said Blashill. “In major junior he could just kind of be bigger than people, and now he has to learn to bounce people off their strides. And when people are checking him, he’s got to use his shoulders and his stride to create a little bit of space for himself.
“He’s had to learn tricks in how to spin off to get to the net and when he does, he’s a very good presence. We’ve sat him a couple of times that was schedule driven and making sure that it’s the long-term development that we’re looking at. He has played a number of good games in a row and his confidence has grown. He’s done a great job.”
Gaining the coach’s trust has put Rasmussen in a good place. He was high on the Wings’ wish-list at the draft because of his versatility, size and potential to be a power winger or strong two-way centre. The offence came naturally to him with 59 points (31-28) in just 47 WHL games last season — he had a wrist injury that required surgery — but learning the NHL game has been a work in progress.
“I’ve done my best to earn my way, but I’ve got to continue to do that and just get better,” said Rasmussen. “Playing the wing, there are different responsibilities in the D-zone, but the O-zone is kind of the same. It’s getting to the corners and getting to the net.
“The only real thing in the D-zone are the regroups and the breakouts, and there’s just more to playing the wall than anything else and not necessarily just more scoring opportunities. It’s just a natural process.”
If the process continues, Rasmussen won’t be on the world stage in his hometown.
“He’s here now and the biggest thing is to monitor the progress and for him continuing to improve and helping us win,” said Blashill. “We’ll make that (world junior) decision at that point. But we’re not going to get too far ahead of ourselves.”
For Cholowski, the goal has been to make an impact on a rebuilding defence. The 20th selection in the 2016 draft is just the latest young player to prove at age 20 that he can handle one of the game’s most demanding positions.
“I think it’s just the excitement of coming in and trying to prove yourself,” said Cholowski, who had 66 points last season (14-52) with Portland and Prince George of the WHL. “There’s really nothing better than trying to be one of the guys and working hard and showing what you can do out there.
“I think every young guy is motivated to do that and that’s a big reason why you see guys like (Elias) Pettersson having success. A lot of young guys are coming in and being put into roles that they had in junior — PP and PK and high-minute roles — and for me, I just try to work hard in practice, and that’s how you earn the opportunities.”
Which, of course, resonates with Blashill.
“Both have been good for us,” he said of Rasmussen and Cholowski. “They’re good today and they’ll be good down the road because they want to be. They have the inner drive.”
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