As Blackhawks’ veteran core withers, Nick Schmaltz, next generation stepping up
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CALGARY, Alberta — It’s no secret that Blackhawks forward Nick Schmaltz’s speed can make a difference.
‘‘There are very few players in the league who can carry the puck at the speed he does,’’ teammate Tommy Wingels said. ‘‘He pushes the pace through the middle as well as I’ve seen in this league. Maybe [Oilers star] Connor McDavid does it better, but [Schmaltz] creates so much with that speed through the middle. It opens up wide lanes.
‘‘You see that with Kaner [Patrick Kane]. He loves playing with [Schmaltz] because it gives him more space. It packs the [defense] up. It forces guys to play the middle more and opens up space for Kaner. [Schmaltz] is a heckuva player. And he’s continuing to get better as the year goes on.’’
It’s that improvement that bodes well not only for Schmaltz but for several of the Hawks’ young players who are beginning to assert themselves with greater authority. Schmaltz, 21, not only has speed, but he is learning how to use it. After scoring in the Hawks’ 4-3 overtime loss Saturday to the Flames, he has 10 goals and 21 points in his last 21 games.
‘‘Once you realize you can play and you realize it’s hockey and you’re just at a really high level, you can make those plays you’ve always made and hold on to the puck,’’ Schmaltz said. ‘‘[You] just play your game and try not to overthink anything.
‘‘Playing with great players every night really helps that. Game in and game out, the more you play with them, the more you develop that chemistry and the confidence that comes with it.’’
The ‘‘young guns’’ have been carrying more of the Hawks’ load lately. Schmaltz, 23-year-old Vinnie Hinostroza and 22-year-old Anthony Duclair scored the Hawks’ goals against the Flames, providing another indication that, while the veteran core is struggling, the next generation is on its way.
In fact, the Hawks’ last 13 goals have been scored by players 23 or younger. Alex DeBrincat (20) has four goals, Schmaltz and Hinostroza three, Duclair two and David Kampf (23) one during that span.
‘‘A lot of [the young guys] are really good players,’’ Kane said. ‘‘Maybe they’re getting more comfortable, too. You see it with Brinks [DeBrincat]. He’s pretty streaky. He can get hot and go off at times. Schmaltz has been really consistent lately, too, producing at a high level. Vinnie’s done a great job, too.
‘‘You can look at those guys and say they’re doing all they can to help us win games. But it’s probably on the veterans a little bit more to pick up the slack and start producing.’’
There’s the rub, of course. In their current plight, the Hawks — who trail the Wild by five points and the Avalanche, Flames and Ducks by four in the battle for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference — are in no position to celebrate the coming of a new age. It’s unlikely the young guys are going to carry them to the playoffs. Brandon Saad hasn’t scored in his last 11 games, and Jonathan Toews and Artem Anisimov haven’t scored in their last 10.
‘‘At this time of year, no matter who you are, we need everybody,’’ coach Joel Quenneville said. ‘‘We’re gonna need our top guys to be the best players they’ve been. We have some new guys that have some speed and some skill. I’m not worried about their age or experience. Right now, it’s about team. . . . We still need them all.’’
Follow me on Twitter @MarkPotash.