Like just about every other player who makes it to the NHL, Nick Schmaltz was almost always the best player on the ice as a kid. But unlike most other hockey prodigies, Schmaltz didn’t pile up the goals in comical numbers. He has always preferred to defer.
“I’ve never been a guy that scores a bunch of goals each year,” Schmaltz said. “It’s just always how I’ve played. Even when I was younger, I’d just kind of skate around for a while, and at the end, just pass it backdoor to somebody.”
Selflessness is a virtue in hockey, a sport that values team over individual almost to a fault. But the Blackhawks have been trying to make Schmaltz into a more selfish player ever since he arrived in training camp last season. His speed and vision make the second-year pro a gifted playmaker, but he has had two or fewer shots on goal in 20 of his 26 games this season. He has gone without a single shot eight times.
You see it time and time again during games. Schmaltz gets the puck and races through the neutral zone with a full head of steam. But once he crosses the blue line, rather than go hard to the net and try to create a scoring chance, he pulls up, stops short along the half wall and looks to make a tricky pass through traffic.
The game Sunday against the Coyotes offered two perfect illustrations. Midway through the second period, Schmaltz was flying down the left side toward the net, and just before he got to the crease, he tried an ill-advised centering pass into the slot. It went nowhere.
But midway through the third, Schmaltz again drove hard to the net. This time, he followed through with it, getting the puck on goal and creating a rebound opportunity for Artem Anisimov. It didn’t result in a goal, but the Hawks had two good scoring chances on that sequence, and none on the other.
“When you get in that scoring area, to pass it out of that scoring area, that’s almost a no-no,” Joel Quenne-ville said. “He does a lot of good things. If he gets that finishing touch to it, it’s going to really enhance his production and our team game.”
Schmaltz has 11 goals and 34 assists in 87 NHL games, so he’s hardly incapable of scoring. But the more he passes up on shots, the more opposing defenders learn to play him accordingly. So Schmaltz knows that he needs to shoot more to keep opponents honest. But when you’ve spent your whole life looking to pass, it’s easier said than done.
The good news is, Schmaltz isn’t fighting the coaches’ efforts to make him more aggressive. At least, not consciously.
“I get a lot of opportunities with the puck in the scoring area, and sometimes I just defer to passing when I have a Grade-A look, and I kind of just throw it out of the scoring area or try to force a back-door pass or something,” Schmaltz said. “Personally, I’d rather set up a guy and have him score a goal than score a goal myself. I like making good plays. But you’ve got to find that balance. You’ve got to be a threat with the shot, too.”
It probably doesn’t help that mindset that Schmaltz has Patrick Kane on his line. Schmaltz admitted there’s a natural tendency to want to feed Kane the puck regardless of the situation, but even Kane has told Schmaltz to be more selfish when opportunities present themselves. Kane knows what he’s talking about, too. He entered the league as a playmaker but evolved into a lethal finisher, with a 46-goal season to his credit. Not a bad model for Schmaltz.
“I’ve got to play my own game, too,” Schmaltz said. “I can’t just always give it to him. I’ve got to be able to make my own offense. So I’ve just got to keep drilling that shot mentality into my head.”
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