Nick Schmaltz’s impending return gives Blackhawks a needed boost

Nick Schmaltz had six goals and 22 assists in 61 games last season. And he has played barely 16 minutes this season after being injured late in his first game and early in his second.

In his absence, though, Schmaltz somehow has become the savior — the reason for Patrick Kane’s stunted start, the solution for a sputtering power play, the answer to all the Blackhawks’ problems.

Yes, the Hawks are 4-1-1 despite losing Schmaltz for the last four-plus games to an apparent head injury. But they haven’t looked anything like the team that lit up the defending champion Penguins 10-1 in a season opener in which the speedy Schmaltz led the charge.

Schmaltz looked fantastic in training camp. And his line, with Kane and Ryan Hartman, was a sight to behold in the opener and in the first two minutes of the second game against the Blue Jackets. The Hawks’ plus-10 goal differential in 62 minutes was absurd, after all.

Patrick Kane and Nick Schmaltz were a dynamic duo in a 10-1 season-opening victory over the Penguins. (Getty Images)

But perhaps expectations have gotten a little too high a little too quickly. Chances are, the Hawks aren’t going to beat the Blues — and every opponent thereafter — 10-1.

‘‘Obviously, that was a rare circumstance where everything was going in for us,’’ Schmaltz said Monday, his first practice back since he was sandwiched between two Blue Jackets on Oct. 7. ‘‘But I think if we can play with that speed and make a lot of plays, we’ll get our chances every game. We’ve just got to come with that mindset that we want the puck and we’re going to hold on to it as long as we can.’’

Kane stands to benefit the most from Schmaltz’s return. Schmaltz’s speed is unlike anything Kane has had before in a center, and he racked up two goals and three assists in the first 62 minutes of the season. Since Schmaltz was hurt, Kane has no goals and three assists.

After spending nearly a month working with Schmaltz, Kane just didn’t click with Artem Anisimov, Tommy Wingels and Tanner Kero as his center.

‘‘I don’t think that’s a knock on anyone else or any of our other centermen,’’ Kane said. ‘‘In those four games, I wasn’t very good, either. With that being said, [Schmaltz] just brings the speed up the middle. The biggest thing with that is the defenseman has to make a decision. If he wants to drop back, he’s going to take [Schmaltz] away, and I get some more time and space. If he wants to come at me, then I can make that play to the middle and maybe have an odd-man rush. That’s his biggest asset, obviously.’’

Schmaltz likely will be reinserted back into the top power-play unit in practice Tuesday, when coach Joel Quenneville plans to focus on that scuffling aspect of the Hawks’ game. They went 0-for-6 with the man advantage Saturday against the Predators and are 4-for-27 in such situations for the season.

Schmaltz can’t waltz in and instantly make everything and everyone around him better. But he clearly has become a nearly irreplaceable cog in the Hawks’ lineup. Remove him from that spot at second-line center, and everything sort of crumbles beyond Jonathan Toews’ line. So while the early expectations might have gotten a bit out of control, there’s no doubt his return makes the Hawks a better team.

‘‘There’s a lot of upside, potentially, with him,’’ Quenneville said. ‘‘And with young players, some guys make big steps. I thought he made a big step for a stretch of games last year after he came up from Rockford, and he showed that he could be a top player.

‘‘This year is the year where he’s showing us he wants to get to that next level. Being consistent in that area would be a great boost for our team.’’

NOTE: Analyst Eddie Olczyk, who is undergoing chemotherapy for colon cancer, will return to the broadcast booth for the game Wednesday on NBCSN. He’ll do other games as his health and chemo schedule allow.

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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