Blackhawks center Nick Schmaltz missed the last 12 minutes of the season opener, the last 58 minutes of the second game and the entirety of the third and fourth games with an upper-body injury. He has been on the ice for 16 minutes and 10 seconds this season.
Yet in his absence, it’s clear just how vital the second-year pro will be to the Hawks’ chances this season.
Speed is everything in the modern-day NHL, and the Hawks don’t quite have enough of it. That was as evident Monday against the Maple Leafs as it was in April against the Predators. The Leafs, as the Predators did, ran around, through and over the Hawks to create scoring chances in transition and dominate the puck.
With Schmaltz on the ice, the Hawks have a line that can do the same to most teams, providing a devastating one-two punch with the heavier, more straightforward top line of Brandon Saad, Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik. Without Schmaltz, everything beyond the Toews line sort of falls apart.
Coach Joel Quenneville is hopeful Schmaltz will be back on the ice Thursday against the Wild. Good thing, too, because the guy who was basically a role player for much of his rookie season has become a key cog in the Hawks’ lineup, a linchpin with no replacement.
When Schmaltz was injured, winger Patrick Kane pointed to all the success he had with Artem Anisimov the last two seasons. And, indeed, Kane won a scoring title and the Hart Trophy with Anisimov in the middle.
But that success came with the speedy, creative Artemi Panarin on the left wing, not the grittier Ryan Hartman. The numbers are clear: In the first 62 minutes of the season, Hartman, Schmaltz and Kane combined for five goals and nine assists. But with Hartman and Anisimov alongside him, Kane and his line were dominated by the speedy Leafs and the slower Canadiens.
Kane had just one shot on goal against the Leafs. He didn’t even have a shot attempt in the first period against the Canadiens, prompting Quenneville to swap him with Lance Bouma.
Kane fared slightly better with Tommy Wingels and John Hayden as his linemates, but being paired with two physical grinders is hardly ideal for Kane, who flourishes with speed and creativity on his line. Kane can’t do it alone, and the dramatic reversal of fortune for his line speaks to just how good Schmaltz was in training camp and in the 10-1 rout of the Penguins in the opener.
There’s a ripple effect, too. Suddenly, Tanner Kero — not Anisimov — is centering Patrick Sharp and Alex DeBrincat. And Wingels, a natural winger, is forced to play center on the fourth line.
‘‘Obviously, you miss a guy that was playing unbelievable for us,’’ Quenneville said. ‘‘He gives us a lot of options, and up the middle, we were probably a little short-staffed in that area and trying to improvise with our lines as we’re getting deeper in periods.’’
In the long run, Schmaltz’s brief absence might prove beneficial for the Hawks, who got to see how other pieces fit — or don’t fit — in the lineup. Knowing Wingels is a viable fourth-line center is valuable information. And knowing the heavier style of Anisimov doesn’t blend as well with Kane and Hartman as it did with Kane and Panarin is important, too.
Above all else, however, if these first four games have shown anything, it’s that Schmaltz — faster, stronger and far more assertive than he was last season — appears to be the key to the Hawks’ offense.
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.