Nick Schmaltz and Tyler Motte could have gone back to college. Schmaltz could have stayed at North Dakota and defended the national championship. Motte could have tried to build on the staggering numbers he put up at Michigan and made a run at the Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s top player.
But Jonathan Toews needs wingers. And he needs them now.
“It’s no secret to anybody that there’s going to be guys that get opportunities here in the near future,” Motte said Monday after Day 2 of the Blackhawks’ prospect camp at Johnny’s IceHouse West. “That definitely factored in quite a bit.”
Every player at prospect camp, from the first-round picks to the non-roster invitees, dreams of playing in the NHL some day. For players such as Vinnie Hinostroza — at his fifth camp — it’s about getting back there and, this time, sticking around. For steadily improving, under-the-radar players such as Freddy Olofsson and Luc Snuggerud, it’s about moving up the organizational depth chart. For the two elite college standouts at camp, it’s about seizing a golden opportunity to bypass the minors altogether.
Motte was part of the best line in the nation last year, posting 32 goals and 24 assists in just 38 games. He’s also spent significant time at both wings, and calls himself a 200-foot player who’s willing to backcheck and block shots — the kind of versatility and mindset that Joel Quenneville craves. Schmaltz is more of a playmaker, with 11 goals and 35 assists in 37 games as a sophomore, and two goals and six assists in seven games at the World Juniors.
Both are high-end skill players who feel they’re NHL ready. The Hawks hope they are, too. After trading Teuvo Teravainen to Carolina, Hawks general manager Stan Bowman gave Schmaltz the hard sell, convincing him to turn pro. Schmaltz said he’s not expecting to be Teravainen — a versatile and dependable two-way forward with Stanley Cup-winning experience — right away. But the 6-1 Wisconsin native — who idolized Patrick Kane growing up — will get every opportunity at training camp in September to take Teravainen’s old job.
“Even before they traded Teravainen, they were going to need guys that were making less money because of the salary cap,” Schmaltz said. “They’re going to need guys on entry-level contracts to play. I’m just going to work for a job and do whatever it takes.”
The Hawks only have one line set in stone — the second grouping of Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov and Kane. Toews’ left wing was a revolving door of players all season, and his longtime right wing, Marian Hossa, proved to be an ideal fit as a shutdown defender alongside Marcus Kruger on the third line. Meanwhile, players such as Hinostroza, Ryan Hartman and Tanner Kero seem more likely to start in the bottom six, if they make the team at all.
Richard Panik played on the top line in the playoffs and fared well, but he’s hardly entrenched. It might not be the likeliest scenario, but it’s entirely possible that either Schmaltz or Motte finds himself on the top line right out of camp. That’s the carrot at the end of the stick — the motivating force to power through a practice immediately after a scrimmage one day after grueling conditioning tests at prospect camp.
Motte cautioned that “you kind of psyche yourself out if you try playing GM,” but it doesn’t take a cap expert to know that the door is wide open for elite prospects this fall — certainly more so than in recent seasons. It’s why prospect camp feels more urgent this year. It’s why training camp — especially with so many of the top players in Toronto for the World Cup — will be so competitive this year. And it’s why two of the nation’s top college players decided it was the right time to leave school and make a run at the NHL.
“I’m going to get better either way,” Schmaltz said. “There’s not a bad choice to either go back another year or come here. I thought this was the best opportunity for me. There are a lot of holes they’ve got to fill.”