Since the Blackhawks drafted Nick Schmaltz with the No. 20 overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, we haven't heard a ton about the young forward. He's been included on top prospect lists and considered one of the organization's best up-and-coming players, but for a while it seemed like that hype was born out of pedigree and projection more than actual on-ice performance.
Now we're starting to see Schmaltz crack into his potential on the ice as a sophomore at the University of North Dakota. The results are showing why the Hawks used their most recent first-round pick on the 19-year-old and why we should be excited for the franchise's best scoring talent not currently under contract.
Schmaltz was named the NCHC Player of the Month for November after a monster few weeks for North Dakota that included two goals and 13 assists in just eight games. During the month, he led the country in primary assists (seven), even-strength assists (10) and game-winning assists (four), giving a glimpse of the dynamic, game-changing playmaker he could potentially be at the next level.
Overall this season, Schmaltz has two goals and 19 assists in 16 games, as well as the best plus-minus (+23) in the country. I know plus-minus isn't the end all, be all, for any individual player, but Schmaltz's improvement during his second season at UND has had a massive impact on the team.
It's also very encouraging for the Blackhawks, who have been waiting for Schmaltz to kick into high gear and make his move toward going pro. After his freshman year at North Dakota, Schmaltz clearly wasn't ready to sign an entry-level deal with Chicago and make the jump. During his appearance at the team's rookie camp over the summer, the word was positive if underwhelming. Schmaltz's talent was never in doubt, but it was apparent he needed more time to feel out his game and fill out his frame.
Now we're seeing that in Year 2 at UND, and Schmaltz should probably have our attention the rest of the year. As Chris Dilks of SBN College Hockey wrote as part of a recent breakdown of Schmaltz, the added lower body strength has paid huge dividends for Schmaltz this season. Not only has it given him an extra boost as a skater, but it's forcing defenses to react to his more varied skillset, which opens up opportunities for his gifted passing ability to come into play.
That improvement has made him significantly more dangerous as a shot creator, though he's admittedly a work-in-progress elsewhere. Defense -- which we know could make or break his ability to become a long-term player under Joel Quenneville -- remains a question mark. He's still not really the high-energy, two-way forward that defines Chicago's system. Schmaltz will have to adapt and figure out how to pace himself to play that kind of game if he doesn't want to fall the way of names like Brandon Pirri and Jimmy Hayes, talented players who just didn't fit what the Hawks do. Schmaltz is also a bit pass-happy on the offensive end, often looking to find an open teammate instead of using his puck skills to pressure the defense and create his own chances. Finding that balance between generous and selfish is key for every player and Schmaltz hasn't quite found his yet.
Still, for a team that's defined by its speed and ability to counter-attack against opposing mistakes, Schmaltz seems like the kind of dynamic talent who could thrive if he'll play the two-way game. Compared to last year, he's much closer to reaching that goal.
Now, it seems increasingly possible that the Hawks try to sign Schmaltz to an ELC after the college season. Obviously he'll still need to finish strong and show that the hot November can be sustained, but Schmaltz is quickly jumping from "high upside curiosity" to "the best prospect not in the organization yet." This is what we hoped would happen with the former first-rounder entering a big 2015-16 season, and right now, he's doing it big. The pipeline remains active.