With a primary assist on the Chicago Blackhawks second goal in a 5-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday night, center Nick Schmaltz now has 47 points in 67 games played during his sophomore season.
This season has been another step in the right direction for Schmaltz, erasing any doubts about a potential sophomore slump following his red-hot finish to the 2016-17 NHL season.
His 47 points rank third on the team, while he’s tied for fourth with 20 goals and sits alone in fourth with 27 assists. Schmaltz’s current pace puts him just shy of 60 points for the season, a positive development for the 22-year-old center in a Blackhawks season that hasn’t had enough of them.
We can talk about Schmaltz’s speed, his confidence skating through the neutral zone and into offensive ice, or his ability to finish when the scoring opportunities are there. We could critique his penchant for over-passing at times. But there’s one quieter skill that Schmaltz has mastered from the day he arrived in the NHL, and it’s time we recognize it:
Nick Schmaltz is brilliant at stealing the puck.
It’s a common tactic used by virtually everyone in the league to steal the puck: lift an opponent’s stick and then quickly swipe the puck away before that opponent even realizes what’s happening. Everyone does it, but certain players have a knack for doing it better and quicker than the rest.
Schmaltz is one of those players.
It was noticeable just a week into his NHL career, when a quick lift of Mike Ribiero’s stick and Schmaltz’s theft of the puck to set himself up for his first career NHL goal:
It was noticeable during this March 1, 2017 game against the Penguins, when Schmaltz chased down the play on a back check, stole the puck, and sent Patrick Kane off the other way for the first of his three goals that night:
Schmaltz does this stick left better than anyone on the team. He had 46 takeaways last season, good for fourth on the team despite only playing in three-quarters of the season. He has 78 this season, 27 ahead of second-place Jonathan Toews and the most by a Hawk since Marian Hossa had 94 (with only 29 giveaways) in the 2011-12 season.
With just 26 giveaways, Schmaltz has the best takeaway/giveaway differential in the league at plus-52, and his 78 takeaways are third in the league behind Connor McDavid (86) and Jeff Skinner (84).
It’s hard to find many videos or GIFs of this ability because it doesn’t always make a highlight reel, but it’s there. Twitter has noticed it:
Really can’t be said enough how good that play was by Schmaltz. Backcheck steal on Hall, zone entry with speed, perfect pass into the slot. That’s why they’re patient with him.— Satchel Price (@SatchelPrice) November 13, 2017
I know this is high praise but Schmaltz steals pucks like Datsyuk and he gets almost none of the attention he deserves for it.— Scott Kennedy (@ScottTKennedy) March 11, 2018
Datsyuk is the modern standard for this hockey move. Hockey Reference’s takeaway/giveaway stats only go back to the 2007-08 season, but Datsyuk’s numbers were just absurd. He had 144 (!!) takeaways in the 2007-08 season, 131 in 2009-10, and 97 in 2011-12. Datsyuk won the Selke Trophy in the first two of those seasons, and finished third in the voting of the final season referenced.
Schmaltz might find himself in that Selke trophy discussion with a few more seasons like this one.