When Nick Schmaltz took control of the puck at the top of the right circle Tuesday night, he had a plan in mind as he wheeled around the back of the net. He saw Jonathan Toews drift toward the crease, and he figured the Minnesota Wild would expect him to try a wraparound shot or a centering pass from the far side of the net.
Instead, Schmaltz stopped and slipped a nifty backhand pass to Toews. Toews, as surprised by the pass as the Wild defenders, managed to pitchfork a shot into the net for what proved to be the winning goal. Nobody saw the pass coming. Nobody except for Schmaltz.
Schmaltz always has a plan.
“I always try to know what I have before I touch the puck, especially in this league, because you have less time and space,” Schmaltz said. “You want to be aware of what’s going on before you touch it, and those little plays can open up space.”
That playmaking ability is what made Schmaltz such a highly touted prospect after his breakout sophomore season at North Dakota last year, when he posted 11 goals and 35 assists in 37 games. But when he made the jump to the NHL, the flashes of creativity were few and far between. He was too quick to give up the puck, too hesitant to shoot, too unsure of himself to play at the level the Hawks expected of him.
“I think we all knew the potential that he had as a player in this league,” Toews said. “And sometimes it takes a little time.”
Toews, who made the same jump from North Dakota to the NHL without a stop in the minor leagues, understood why. The transition from the loose college schedule to the rigorous NHL schedule can be overwhelming at first — mentally as much as physically.
“It’s so much different playing so many more games,” Schmaltz said. “In college, you just kind of practice all week and play two games on the weekend. So it has been an adjustment. You have to make sure you’re taking care of your body. And there’s not as much practice, so you’ve got to make sure you’re sharp in morning skates. You’ve just got to prepare differently. I feel more comfortable now.”
A 12-game stint in Rockford did wonders for Schmaltz. He went from playing 10 or 11 minutes a night to playing 20 minutes a night, in all situations. He got to be a top guy again, like he was in college, and get his confidence back. He -returned to the Hawks on Jan. 15 and has been a different player since, with four goals and six assists in 15 games. He has two goals and five assists in his last six games, and he is making a case to be the long-term solution as Toews’ left wing on the top line.
In a three-point night against the Wild, Schmaltz seemed to have the puck on his stick constantly, moving through the offensive zone with an almost Patrick Kane-like flair.
Joel Quenneville, who chooses his words carefully, especially when talking about rookies, had high praise for Schmaltz.
“He’s been really good,” Quenneville said. “[Tuesday] was the most we’ve ever seen him with the puck. I don’t know how many times he evaded coverage, and all of a sudden he loses the guy on him and a play develops. That play against the grain to [Toews] was spectacular.”
Schmaltz is very much on the Teuvo Teravainen track. Teravainen, in his rookie season, looked overwhelmed early on before a confidence-boosting stint in Rockford led to major contributions during a Stanley Cup run in 2015. That’s the plan for Schmaltz, too. And Schmaltz is usually pretty good with a plan.
“Obviously, you don’t ever want to get sent down,” Schmaltz said. “But a lot of guys go through it. In the long run, when I look back at it, I can see it was definitely beneficial. That time in Rockford really made a difference for me.”
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.