Blackhawks center Nick Schmaltz has flashed his speed and high-caliber skills the last two seasons. This season, he wants to become an elite two-way forward.
And luckily for Schmaltz, he already has Patrick Kane’s support.
“[Schmaltz] can be a top player in the league,” Kane said last week. “The way he skates, the way he sees the game, the way he can pass the puck, and he’s really got an underrated knack to find open areas and get his one-timer off, too.
“He can take another jump, for sure. He’s still a pretty young guy, but he’s one of those guys that we’re going to be leaning on pretty heavily.”
A native of Madison, Wisconsin, Schmaltz, 22, doesn’t take those words lightly — especially coming from a three-time Stanley Cup champion and a Conn Smythe Trophy winner.
“Anytime you get a compliment from a guy like that,” Schmaltz said, “it’s very humbling. It’s an honor.”
But Schmaltz also recognizes that those words don’t mean anything until he actually proves Kane right, which he’s determined to do this season.
Schmaltz has shown constant growth on both ends of the ice.
During his rookie season in 2016-17, Schmaltz had six goals and 22 assists in 61 games. And in 78 games last season, he scored 21 goals and had 52 points, tying captain Jonathan Toews and winger Alex DeBrincat for second-most on the Hawks.
Schmaltz stepped up in the defensive zone, too. The 2014 first-round pick had the third-most takeaways (86) in the league last season behind Oilers center Connor McDavid and Sabres center Jeff Skinner, who had 111 and 93, respectively.
“When you watch [Schmaltz] . . . he can wow you on shifts,” coach Joel Quenneville said.
He has been on one of the most exciting lines of the preseason. With Kane on his right and Brandon Saad on his left, Schmaltz says he can become a better player as he seeks consistency.
“Some games I’m dominant with the puck and creating chances all over the place, and some games I’m kind of not doing the things I do when I’m successful,” Schmaltz said. “So if I can put it together every night, play that same way, use my feet and make plays, I think playing with Kane and Saad is going to help me. We can definitely be a dynamic line and be one of the better lines in the league.”
Entering his third NHL season and second full season, the key for Schmaltz is trusting in himself. If he does that, he believes success could be on the horizon for the Hawks.
“[You] just have to play your game and know that you can be the best player out there every night and try to be the best player you can be for your team,” Schmaltz said. “[That] brings out the best with your linemates when you’re playing and enhances the team’s game a lot. So doing my part, and then if I play my game . . . our team should have a lot of success.”