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Blackhawks Top 25 Under 25 for 2017: Nick Schmaltz returns to No. 2

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Can Schmaltz build off a strong second half to his rookie season?

St Louis Blues v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Nick Schmaltz has been one of the highest-touted prospects in the Chicago Blackhawks organization since the team traded up to select him in the 2014 NHL Draft. After two years at North Dakota — including a breakout sophomore season during 2015-16 that saw him score 46 points in 37 games — the Hawks signed him last June and he made his NHL debut during the 2016-17 season. And that’s when we saw two very different versions of Schmaltz.

Key info

Position: Forward
Birth date: Feb. 23, 1996
Acquired via: 2014 NHL Draft, first round (No. 20)
Most recent stop: Chicago Blackhawks (NHL)
Size: 6’0, 177 pounds
Contract: Two years, $925,000 cap hit plus bonuses

Breakdown

Just three games into his NHL career, Schmaltz got his first goal in the first period of a 5-3 win over the Nashville Predators in mid-October. Schmaltz would also pick up three assists in his first 26 games, but that was it. And Schmaltz didn’t look ready for the NHL level. After the Hawks game on December 3, Schmaltz was sent down to Rockford where he remained for a little over a month, picking up nine points in 12 games played. The Hawks then called Schmaltz up from Rockford in mid-January.

And then Schmaltz came alive.

In the final 35 games of the season, Schmaltz had five goals and 19 assists while looking like a completely different player from the one that struggled in the first chunk of his professional career. He played well enough to earn top-line minutes with Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik, leading to some of the best play of his season.

In a nine-game stretch starting in February, he complied three goals and eight assists. That included a three-point game against the Minnesota Wild and a two-point night against the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 1. It was in that game that Schmaltz flashed the skills that made him such a first-round pick.

In the second period, he showed his two-way ability, chasing down Jake Guentzel, stripping the puck, and then springing Patrick Kane for a 2-on-1 the other way that resulted in a Hawks goal.

On offense, Schmaltz has always been known as a playmaker with excellent passing skills. And you caught a glimpse of that later in the second period. Sprung on another 2-on-1 by Artemi Panarin, Schmaltz stick-handled through two Pittsburgh defenders, drawing their attention and opening up a passing lane to Kane for an easy one-timer that put the game away.

Schmaltz had an uneventful four playoff games, but so did the rest of the team. His season-long CF% was 49.7%, which wasn’t awful for a first-year player but certainly a number that will need to improve, especially if he’s going to start in the offensive zone 57% of the time, as he did last season. That lower CF% number is forgivable, but his 30.9 FO% was not. If his future is going to be at center (more on that shortly) in Chicago, then he was to win more than three out of every 10 faceoffs.

What’s next in 2017-18?

Schmaltz is all but assured a roster spot in Chicago next season. The question is where he’s going to fit in the lineup. But with the retirement of Marian Hossa, there’s another open spot in the Hawks top six forwards, and Schmaltz displayed last season that he can handle that role.

But the Hawks need Schmaltz to play like he did in the second half of the season and not the timid, tentative player who struggled through the first few months. Schmaltz played center and wing last season, and it’d be a huge boost to the Hawks if Schmaltz could lock down a center position. Having Toews, Schmaltz, and Artem Anisimov centering the team’s three scoring lines with Tanner Kero handling the Marcus Kruger role on the fourth line would give the Hawks better center depth than it’s had in the last two seasons, which ended with first-round playoff exits.

Even if Schmaltz stays on a wing, he needs to take another step forward in 2017-18. With two years remaining on his entry-level deal, a top-six performance from a player who makes under $1 million is the kind of valued performance that the Hawks need to be successful.