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Blackhawks Top 25 Under 25: Nick Schmaltz awaits his NHL chance at No. 2

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Can 2014 first-round pick Nick Schmaltz live up to the hype? He's on his way.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Schmaltz has been one of the Chicago Blackhawks' top prospects since the team traded up to select him in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft. Now ranked No. 2 on our Top 25 Under 25 list, the gifted forward is on the brink of a potentially big role with the NHL team this season. Like every other young forward battling for playing time in Chicago, he's got a lot of competition, but Schmaltz has the highest upside of the bunch. If he can put it all together as a three-zone player, Schmaltz could be one of the best playmakers in hockey.

Key info

Position: Center/Right wing
Birth date: Feb. 23, 1996
Acquired via: First round pick (No. 20 overall) in 2014 NHL Draft
Most recent stop: University of North Dakota (NCAA)
Nationality: America
Size: 6'0, 177 pounds
Contract: ELC ($925K AAV plus performance bonuses, expires 2019)

Breakdown

Schmaltz has been a good prospect for a long time, and one that the Hawks liked from the very beginning. That's why they traded up to draft the Madison, Wisc., native in the first round in 2014, and it's why they pushed so hard to sign him to an entry-level contract this summer. Since he agreed to leave college to go pro, he's been consistently mentioned as a possible major contributor in Chicago this season.

The ceiling for Schmaltz is undeniably high, although it's unclear whether he's ready to reach it -- or whether he'll reach it at all. ESPN's Corey Pronman noted that he's still a work-in-progress with his play away from the puck and needs to get better at finishing his checks, for example. If Schmaltz wants to develop into a top two-way forward in the NHL, he'll have to polish those parts of his game to become a more complete, consistent player.

What Schmaltz brings to the table is almost supernatural playmaking ability. He's got the size to be strong on the puck, uses his vision to find angles and displays elite-level passing skill. After a good-not-great freshman year at UND where he recorded five goals and 26 points in 38 games, Schmaltz blew up as a sophomore with 11 goals and 46 points in 37 games as the Fighting Hawks won the national championship. Playing on a line with Vancouver prospect Brock Boeser, who ranks even higher in prospect circles, certainly helped Schmaltz, but it should be little surprise that an elite playmaker would benefit from being paired with players better equipped to finish the chances he creates.

And beyond his amazing offensive ability, Schmaltz is making progress with the rest of his game. He's improved defensively, becoming more involved as a forechecker as a sophomore at UND. The 20-year-old even killed some penalties in his time with Team USA at the World Junior Championship, where he had eight points in seven games.

Schmaltz has played up to the talent around him at times, and while that's frustrated scouts looking for more consistency, it at least hints toward his upside. "He has played well, but you know that he could get to that higher level and simply hasn't done it yet," Pronman wrote in his prospect rankings.

Maybe getting the opportunity to potentially play next to Jonathan Toews as a rookie will help motivate Schmaltz to take his game to that level so many have waited to see. The upside is definitely there, although there should be some skepticism about his ability to produce from Day 1.

What’s next for 2016-17

Isn't that what everyone wants to know? Schmaltz enters camp with as much uncertainty as any prospect in the Hawks' system. He could potentially spend the entire year in Rockford if he's not ready, but there's a non-zero chance that he finds himself playing next to Toews on opening night. It's a wide range of possibilities, which is appropriate for a player who could pan out in a number of different ways. Maybe he'll follow the same path as Teuvo Teravainen and get a few months in the AHL before becoming a full-time NHLer midway through the season. He's going to be closely watched no matter where he is, though, as the Hawks' best chance at adding another high-level young forward in the near future.

Second City Hockey's Top 25 Under 25 rankings

No. 2: Nick Schmaltz
No. 3:
Gustav Forsling
No. 4: Alex DeBrincat
No. 5: Ville Pokka
No. 6: Ryan Hartman
No. 7: Vincent Hinostroza
No. 8: Tyler Motte
No. 9: John Hayden
No. 10: Mark McNeill
No. 11: Fredrik Olofsson
No. 12: Chad Krys
No. 13: Erik Gustafsson
No. 14: Luke Johnson
No. 15: Tanner Kero
No. 16: Artur Kayumov
No. 17: Carl Dahlstrom
No. 18: Dennis Gilbert
No. 19: Luc Snuggerud
No. 20: Robin Norell
No. 21: Robin Press
No. 22: Dylan Sikura
No. 23: Graham Knott
No. 24: Anthony Louis
No. 25: Roy Radke

Honorable mentions: Radovan Bondra, Joni Tuulola, Mathias From, John Dahlstrom, Lucas Carlsson