Nick Schmaltz’s speed adds new dimension to Patrick Kane’s game
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Artem Anisimov is a big body who does all the little things well. Brad Richards was a savvy veteran with a nose for the net and a solid two-way game. Dave Bolland was a gritty pest with some sneaky offensive ability. Marcus Kruger was a defensive specialist with little offensive upside.
All of them were solid, reliable centers for Patrick Kane, sturdy anchors who allowed him to roam freely and dominate the puck. But none was particularly fast.
But Nick Schmaltz? Schmaltz is fast. And as the Blackhawks’ eye-popping 10-1 rout Thursday of the Penguins showed, that speed could open up a whole new world of possibilities for Kane.
‘‘If he has speed, he can beat guys through that if a defenseman doesn’t back up,’’ Kane said. ‘‘And if [the defenseman] does back up, then it gives me more space. It’s kind of a win-win in my situation when I get the puck.’’
Indeed, when Schmaltz comes flying through the middle of the ice — with or without the puck — opponents have to pick their poison. Do they pressure him and risk having him blow by for a breakaway? Do they back off and leave the slot wide-open for him, Kane and Ryan Hartman to work some magic, while allowing the Hawks’ defensemen space to join the rush? Does it even matter when there’s that much speed and that much skill?
Schmaltz had an outstanding training camp, immediately seizing the No. 2 center spot from Anisimov. And after only one game, Kane compared Schmaltz to the most dynamic player in the world, who just so happened to have scored a hat trick a night earlier.
‘‘Watching [the Oilers’ Connor] McDavid [on Wednesday] night, you saw some of the similarities with Schmaltz, where he comes through the middle that fast and can almost create breakaways by getting that puck with so much speed in the middle of the ice,’’ Kane said.
What separates McDavid from everyone else isn’t just his elite skill; it’s that he can use that skill while moving at breathtaking speed. If Schmaltz can use his own speed and playmaking ability, Kane might be in for many more four-point nights.
‘‘It opens up a ton,’’ said Hartman, who had a goal and four assists Thursday. ‘‘The defense has to respect that. They’ve got to back up a little bit because they know a guy with that type of speed is coming through the middle, and it opens up the sides. So having a guy with speed like that definitely helps offensively, for sure.’’
The Hawks scored in all sorts of ways against the Penguins. Kane found Hartman from behind the net. Kane teed up two goals for Schmaltz as they streaked down opposite wings with Hartman in the middle. The trio was in constant motion, usually at high speed.
That game was obviously a best-case scenario, but Schmaltz said he sees no reason why he, Kane and whomever the left wing is can’t keep generating Grade-A scoring chances.
‘‘I just try to use my speed up the middle,’’ Schmaltz said. ‘‘When I do that, I’m going to get a lot of chip passes and a lot of mini-breakaways out of that.’’
Schmaltz always has been more of a playmaker than a scorer. As a sophomore at North Dakota, he had 11 goals and 35 assists in 37 games. Last season, he had six goals and 22 assists in 61 games with the Hawks. But through one game this season, he already has two goals and an assist.
Schmaltz said he doesn’t set statistical goals for himself. But with his speed and vision through the middle and Kane’s playmaking ability on the perimeter, the possibilities are tantalizing.
‘‘I’m just trying to take a step forward in my career from last year,’’ Schmaltz said. ‘‘If I play the way I’m capable of playing, the numbers will be there.’’
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.