Nick Schmaltz has gone from center-ice seats to center ice

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Nick Schmaltz had 11 goals and 35 assists in 37 games for North Dakota last season. (Getty Images)

Nick Schmaltz was there — center ice, 100 level — when Marian Hossa took a five-minute boarding major with 63 seconds left in one of the most pivotal games in modern Blackhawks history, Game 5 against Nashville in 2010.

Schmaltz leapt out of his seat when Patrick Kane scored a shorthanded goal with 14 seconds left to send the game to overtime, and joined the bedlam when Hossa scored right out of the penalty box to win it in overtime, springboarding the Hawks to their first Stanley Cup in 49 years.

For obvious reasons, that’s the one that sticks out in Schmaltz’s mind. But he attended about 10 playoff games as a fan, cheering the anthem and screaming for big hits and singing along to Chelsea Dagger after goals. And he watched countless more games on television from Verona, Wis., in the southwest Madison suburbs. So to be standing on the blue line Saturday morning at the United Center, a Blackhawks logo on his chest, 15,000-plus fans cheering while Jim Cornelison belted out the anthem, well, it was almost surreal.

“It gave me goosebumps just being out there,” Schmaltz said. “It was a good experience and I hope for more to come.”

So do the Hawks, who privately and publicly have tapped Schmaltz as the player to watch among the next generation of players — a supremely gifted, mature and versatile player who helped the University of North Dakota win a national championship last spring. With Teuvo Teravainen now with the Carolina Hurricanes, Schmaltz is arguably the most skilled prospect in the organization. And he has a very real chance of making the team out of camp.

And, hey, no pressure or anything, but Jonathan Toews is looking for a couple of linemates.

“Just to be in the conversation is pretty amazing,” Schmaltz said. “Obviously, he’s one of the top centermen in the league. It’d be quite an honor to play with him. But I’ve just got to focus on showing how I can play and doing whatever I can to make the team, no matter who I’m playing with.”

That’s what general manager Stan Bowman wants to hear. The 20-year-old Schmaltz is battling for one of those top-line spots with more established and experienced young players such as Richard Panik, Vinnie Hinostroza, and a host of other players who have at least dipped a toe in NHL waters. Then there’s Tyler Motte, another college star out of Michigan. Schmaltz has two weeks to make his case.

“The opportunities are there for these guys to step forward and show us which guys can play,” Bowman said before camp. “I think it’s dangerous to try and label guys to fill that role. It’s probably unfair to them. One thing I told all those guys, I’m not sure which of you is going to make the team, but don’t make the decision easy for us. That’s one thing that’s different this year — they don’t have a lot of veteran guys ahead of them, so they’re essentially playing amongst themselves. We’ve got a group of six to eight young players, and a number of them can make it.”

Indeed, the Hawks haven’t brought in any veterans on tryout contracts — a clear sign to that next wave of players that it’s finally their turn to sink or swim. And with most of the Hawks’ top players still away thanks to the World Cup of Hockey, the competition between the prospects is as pronounced and competitive as ever.

“It’s a good experience,” Schmaltz said. “They’ve got a lot of guys gone, so a lot of young guys are going to be able to play a little more than they normally would. It’s a great opportunity for all the young guys, so I’m just going to do everything i can to show what I’ve got.”

What he’s got is a knack for playmaking. The speedy 6-footer had 11 goals and 35 assists in just 37 games for North Dakota as a sophomore. While Motte’s the finisher, Panik has the head start, and Hinostroza is the oldest and most developed, the Hawks feel Schmaltz has the highest ceiling of the bunch. After a solid prospect camp in July, Schmaltz went back to Madison to work on his quickness and his lower-body strength.

The transition from college to the NHL can be a tricky one. Schmaltz thinks it’ll be almost easier from an offensive standpoint, because he’ll be surrounded by such high-end talent. But he knows getting the puck back from opponents will be the challenge, and as a two-way forward, that’s what he’s focusing on the most.

The training-camp festival on Saturday was a good start, to get the awe and disbelief out of his system. Wednesday’s preseason opener against the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins will be the next big test. After all those trips to the United Center as a fan, Schmaltz is hoping to make it his permanent home as a player.

“Obviously, that’s my ultimate goal,” he said. “But I can’t control what decisions they make. I’m just going to try to work as hard as I can and put a good impression on everyone. Then I’ll just hope for the best.”

NOTES: Duncan Keith (knee) skated again on Monday, but assistant coach Kevin Dineen said he won’t play in at least the first four preseason games. Ville Pokka joined practice Monday and could play in Wednesday’s preseason opener. Patrick Kane and Michal Kempny will rejoin the team on Tuesday, but won’t play Wednesday. Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marcus Kruger, Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov will join camp on Friday.


Twitter: @marklazerus

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