A reinvigorated Nick Schmaltz showing progress after AHL stint

The 20-year-old is growing more comfortable as a playmaker on offense.

The Blackhawks sent Nick Schmaltz down to the AHL in December to rediscover his scoring game. The former first-round pick left the University of North Dakota to put up points in the NHL, but his confidence had wavered after sputtering up and down the lineup for the first two months of his professional career.

Schmaltz scored two goals in his first game with the Rockford IceHogs, and he’s taken off since then. A bigger, more stable role did exactly what the Blackhawks hoped, restoring his confidence and aggressiveness as a shooter on the ice.

"That's something I've been working on for a while, a shot-first mentality," Schmaltz said a week ago. "When there's a pass there I'll make it but if you get an open look in the slot or if you run out of options, just send it to the net and our linemates will be going there. You're looking to shoot and getting those second chances off the rebound."

Now Schmaltz is back on the wing next to Jonathan Toews in the Blackhawks’ top six. He’s earned it, too, by returning from Rockford with a revitalized game that’s helped restore the momentum to his career. Schmaltz wasn’t the kind of rookie who could step into a starring role from Day 1, but his many talents make the end game to this adjustment period tantalizing to consider.

Since his stint with the IceHogs, in which he scored six goals in 12 games, Schmaltz has returned with a renewed urgency to his game. After recording four points in his first 26 NHL contests, he’s racked up three in eight games since coming back from Rockford.

That’s not eye-popping production, but Schmaltz is looking for his own shot more often, and it’s making him a more difficult player to defend. One of the problems for Schmaltz in the first few weeks of his career was that he’d become too passive offensively. A player of his caliber should want the puck on his stick, but Schmaltz kept making quick, simple passes rather than use his size and vision to press the defense for better angles.

Opponents could keep Schmaltz out of shooting lanes, and given his lack of comfort bodying up with the puck on his stick, he seemed anxious at times to make a pass. It wasn’t conducive to creating good chances, and it’s one reason he needed time down in the AHL.

Over the past couple weeks, Schmaltz has been much more comfortable pushing the puck himself, whether it’s looking for his own shot or to patiently wait for different passing angles to open up. He’s got enough size and speed that he’s not easy for opponents to handle when he’s got his head up, and now that he’s starting to realize that, he’s becoming more dangerous. His shots per game rate has gone from 0.61 pre-Rockford to 1.63 since returning.

And it’s not just the upticks in point production and shot generation. Schmaltz’s possession numbers have taken a major leap forward post-Rockford, too, which is another sign he’s making progress.

Through Dec. 3, when he got sent to the AHL, the Blackhawks posted a 5-on-5 Corsi of just 46.9 percent with Schmaltz on the ice. They took an even lower percentage (44.6) of 5-on-5 shots on goal. Since he came back, the Blackhawks have a 56.8 percent 5-on-5 Corsi and have a 45-30 advantage in 5-on-5 shots on goal.

Take it all together, and it seems clear that Schmaltz has started elevating his game after having several months of professional hockey under his belt. Even if it’s a limited sample, hopefully this is closer to what we can expect from Schmaltz going forward than his quiet start to the season. That’d be a big development for the Blackhawks as they figure out how to maximize their odds for a Stanley Cup run in the spring.