Nick Schmaltz to get first crack at playing second-line center

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Nick Schmaltz had six goals and 22 assists in 61 games as a rookie. (AP Photo)

Nick Schmaltz has been perfectly content playing on the wing for most of his brief NHL career.

No rookie’s going to turn down a chance to play on Jonathan Toews’ line, after all. But Schmaltz has been steadfast in his belief that he’s better suited to play center, his natural position.

It looks like coach Joel Quenneville is starting to think so, too.

Schmaltz centered the Blackhawks’ second line with Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane during Saturday’s training-camp-festival scrimmage, and the line produced three goals in two periods. Schmaltz scored the first goal of the scrimmage and later helped Brent Seabrook score with a deceptive fake-shot off a cross-ice pass by Sharp.

“Schmaltz had a real good day,” Quenneville said. “Real-ly dangerous, liked his pace. The puck was following him around a little, as well. I liked his linemates and his line.”

Quenneville, in his typically cryptic way, strongly hinted that the Hawks will start the season with Schmaltz on the second line, which will bump Artem Anisimov down to the third line.

One concern with Schmaltz at center is his work in the faceoff circle. Among the 210 players with at least 100 draws (Schmaltz had 272), he was last at 30.9 percent, more than five points worse than the 209th-place player, Florida’s Denis Malgin. But Quenneville brushed it off as growing pains.

“Young guys, they get better every year,” Quenne-ville said. “They get a little stronger in situations. [You] start knowing your opponents, the referees, what you can take advantage of going into puck drops. That’s an evolution for young guys. That experience comes with on-the-job training. I would expect him to improve.”

Schmaltz said he got “some tips” from Sharks center Joe Pavelski during the summer at home in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s also planning to pick the brains of Toews and faceoff coach Yanic Perreault.

“I played a lot of wing last year, but my natural position is center,” Schmaltz said. “I feel comfortable wherever, and I’m going to do as best I can wherever they put me.”

Welcome party

For the Hawks’ newcomers, the training-camp festival — a chance for fans to get the full game-day experience for $10 — was an eye-opener, with some fans camping out as early as 10 p.m. Friday night to secure the best seats. The United Center was nearly full for the scrimmage.

“This was insane,” defenseman Connor Murphy said. “When I heard them say that the second game of camp is at 11 a.m. and they’re going to have a sold-out crowd and they’re going crazy for the anthem and everything — you won’t find that anywhere. It speaks volumes to how great this city is [and its] fans.”

Old-timers’ day

Steve Larmer and Denis Savard played in the final few minutes of the third period, with J-F Berube cruelly making a couple of saves on both of them.

“Both guys were pretty excited about being out there,” Quenneville said. “I think the fans loved it. It was good entertainment.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.



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