It was only two years ago that Nick Schmaltz participated in his first Blackhawks convention, lumped in with his buddies Ryan Hartman and Vinnie Hinostroza, and thrown on a “prospect panel” with Tyler Motte, Tanner Kero, Kyle Baun and Mark McNeill.
Schmaltz is the only one left.
“It’s different for sure,” Schmaltz said before Friday’s opening ceremony. “It feels like yesterday, but now it’s a new team.”
Schmaltz is no longer the prospect, or the kid, or the young guy. That label better suits Dylan Sikura and Victor Ejdsell, Matthew Highmore and David Kampf. Schmaltz is entering his third NHL season, and his second full campaign. Now that he’s no longer a prospect, and coming off a 21-goal, 52-point season, he knows it’s time for him to become what Joel Quenneville always calls a “top guy.”
“It’s gone by so fast, and it’s crazy just trying to take it all in and learn from these guys still,” Schmaltz said. “I’m still trying to get to where I want to be, and that’s a high-end player every night in this league.”
Schmaltz said his comfort level is higher than ever, but that he’s careful to “never be satisfied.” His offseason workouts have focused on improving his shot (and his willingness to use it) and his faceoff percentage. Schmaltz is all but locked in as the Hawks’ second-line center, and eventually should take over the top spot from Jonathan Toews. But he can’t do that if he’s winning just 40.1 percent of his faceoffs like he did last season — 216th out 231 players who took at least 100 draws.
“I’ve got some stuff that I’m going to continue to work on, especially in the faceoff circle,” he said. “If I can continue to get that up, that’ll only help our team game with the puck.”
Quenneville said the biggest thing the Hawks need — besides a healthy Corey Crawford — is for their top guys to play like top guys. He said he firmly believes that Toews (30), Duncan Keith (35) and Brent Seabrook (33) can get back to that level, and that Patrick Kane (29) will continue to stay at that level. But the Hawks can’t rely on those guys forever. Schmaltz knows it’s up to him to become a top guy himself, and to do it soon.
“Everyone knows what they need to bring for this team to be successful,” he said. “If I can chip in a little bit and do my role — if everyone can do that — we should have a pretty good team.”