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Nick Schmaltz should be Blackhawks’ 2nd-line center on opening day

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A few days into camp it’s already clear Schmaltz needs to be elevated into a bigger role.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Chicago Blackhawks have had a good thing going the past couple years with Artem Anisimov as their second-line center. He put up career-best numbers as a netfront presence alongside a pair of superstars.

But then the Blackhawks opened training camp this week, and Nick Schmaltz began playing as the team’s second-line center with Patrick Kane. Now a few days in, this looks like an experiment that’s ready to be tried in primetime when the real games begin.

There’s a reason why Joel Quenneville is making this move right now. The Blackhawks over the past two years had two beastly puck handlers in Kane and Artemi Panarin to spin around defenses and set up chances close in for Anisimov. When you take out Panarin, the mix is different. It’s not necessarily a lock that Anisimov would be as effective if he’s needed as more of a playmaker in a top-six role.

That brings you to Schmaltz, who was a first-round pick in 2014 largely because of his gifted passing ability. He sees the ice well, skates well, and makes plays with the puck that most players wouldn’t even try. The warts were always in his play away from the puck, where he’d often disappear from games.

But already in training camp over the past couple days, we’ve seen why Schmaltz needs a shot at being next to Kane, one of the league’s great scorers. He looks confident moving the puck and getting lower in the zone, something that wasn’t typically an element of his game last season. As a center, that’s basically a requirement, so it’s a good sign for his transition to that position, regardless of which line it is on.

Here are a couple goals he scored from a scrimmage Sunday:

On both of them he’s getting position lower in the zone and finishing up close. He’s even making nifty fakeout plays to throw off the defense. Yes, it’s not a real game, and maybe it’s just a poor reflection on the Hawks’ blue liners, too, but Schmaltz wasn’t making these plays regularly last season.

“Schmaltz had a real good day,” Joel Quenneville said on Saturday, via the Chicago Sun-Times. “Really dangerous, liked his pace. The puck was following him around a little, as well. I liked his linemates and his line.”

We’re seeing a better, more confident player here, and that’s something the Hawks should dig into. Schmaltz’s playmaking ability is legitimately elite-level. It’s just that so much of the rest of his game was lacking that you could envision so many scenarios where he’d never put it together. His faceoff ability remains a massive question mark, for one.

But we’re seeing major signs of progress, and he’s the kind of young player whose upside is impossible to ignore.

Anisimov can be a fine No. 2 center. Twenty goals, 40-plus points. We’ve seen that the past two seasons. Schmaltz could be so much more than that. He’s not a guy whose potential is limited to being a 40-point guy. The playmaking ability, if unleashed as part of a much more solid all-around game on the same line as Kane, could lead to a whole lot more than that.

So what’s the downside here? Schmaltz is bad at faceoffs? Well hey, Anisimov has been at 44.6 percent the past three seasons. Not exactly a worldbeater.

If this works, suddenly you can see how the Hawks’ lineup comes together a bit better. Brandon Saad gives the first line new life, Schmaltz and Kane anchor an offensive-minded second line, and Anisimov and Ryan Hartman take on some tougher assignments on the third line. There are still open spots to figure out there, but Patrick Sharp seems to look pretty good in camp, too. There’s a chance this comes together into a forward group that a lot of people around the league will underestimate.

And if it doesn’t work, you can put Anisimov back on the second line. That’s always a fallback option.

The potential is too much to ignore, though. Just picture it...

Saad-Toews-Panik
DeBrincat-Schmaltz-Kane
Sharp-Anisimov-Hartman
Jurco-Kero-Wingels

It could be glorious. It could score all the goals. It could ... win a Stanley Cup? I don’t know, we still need to talk about the defense.

But a few days into camp, I’m pumped about the possibility of Schmaltz blossoming on the second line. If the Hawks decide to say screw it and give Alex DeBrincat a shot on that line, too, it’ll be must-see TV, at least to find out what happens. And man, doesn’t that third line look pretty dang good?

So you can see what the Hawks might be getting at here if it all pans out. This season could be a ton of fun.