Chicago Blackhawks forward Nick Schmaltz stood at a crossroad after his rookie season during the 2016-17 NHL season.
He’d played 61 games that year, sandwiched around a stint with the Rockford Ice Hogs, amassing six goals and 22 assists. But the first half of that season featured just four points in 26 games. After returning from the AHL, Schmaltz had 24 points in his final 35 games. The question for Schmaltz’s sophomore campaign was simple: which version of Schmaltz would the Hawks get?
Answer: the better one.
Schmaltz continued to produce at a similar pace to the back half of his rookie season, racking up 21 goals (third on the team) and 31 assists (third on the team) for a total of 52 points that was part of a three-way tie with Alex DeBrincat and Jonathan Toews for second on the team.
He accomplished all of this while moving from wing to center, not always an easy move for a player who started the season at the age of 21. If there’s one obvious area for improvement, it’s at the faceoff dot, where Schmaltz won just 40.1 percent (he went 321-480) of his draws (Although there are arguments out there claiming that faceoffs may be overrated).
Schmaltz also displayed the knack for a two-way style of hockey, most notably his ability to steal the puck from an opponent, something discussed at this website during the season.
Of course, Schmaltz benefited from playing with Patrick Kane, still one of the league’s most effective offensive weapons. Natural Stat Trick had the two skating together for just under 750 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time, generating a 51.36 CF% while starting in the offensive zone 66.1% of the time, the clear favorite duo to use on attack for Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. What may be even more interesting to point out, though, is that Schmaltz’s numbers hardly suffered in the 306:24 of ice time he had without Kane. The CF% actually goes up to 52.30 and none of the other possession metrics take a noticeable drop despite the percentage of offensive zone starts dropping down to 59.38. While any NHL player is likely going to be helped by skating alongside Kane, those numbers suggest that Schmaltz may not need a player of Kane’s caliber to be a productive top-six forward.
What’s next for Schmaltz in 2018-19?
This is where things start to get more interesting. First off, Schmaltz will be playing on the final year of his entry-level deal, making him a restricted free agent in the summer of 2019. The question will be how much of a raise he receives over his current $925,000 salary, with the potential for that number to go significantly higher if Schmaltz can have an even bigger season in 2018-19.
The big question is figuring out who will be skating on Schmaltz’s wings next year. Patrick Kane figures to be one of them, given how much time they spent together during the prior season. But that doesn’t feel like it’s required, especially if Quenneville decides to load up the top line with Saad, Toews and Kane to start the season. That could leave DeBrincat and someone like Vinnie Hinostroza on the second line for a trio with plenty of wheels. Or perhaps Toews and Saad get DeBrincat while Schmaltz and Kane stick together with players like Hinostroza, Anthony Duclair, Dylan Sikura and maybe even Tomas Jurco audition for a chance to be the lucky third member of that line.
Quenneville has plenty of options for his line combinations next season. But for the first time in a very long time, Chicago has a fixture at No. 2 center behind Toews with Schmaltz proving he was worthy of the first-round selection (20th overall) that the Blackhawks used on him in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.